BHP Billiton (BHP) Investing in New Potash Mine
BHP’s plans to invest more money in its Saskatchewan potash project could weaken long-term pricing of the crop nutrient, threaten the viability of junior explorers and prove to be a game changer for the global fertilizer industry. The world's largest miner plans to invest $240 million to fund the development of the first stages of its Jansen potash project in Western Canada. The mine is being designed to produce about 8 million tonnes of potash a year, or roughly 12% of current global capacity. The $240 million is less than a tenth of what a project this size would cost and BHP only intends to make its final investment decision in 2011, but its announcement raises the likelihood that Jansen will eventually go into production. BHP said it plans to pursue two other greenfield potash projects in the resource-rich Canadian province, while also working on logistics and port facilities to transport product from its mine. The mineral emerged from obscurity a few years ago, when high grain prices, coupled with tight potash supplies and strong demand drove prices to over $1,000 a tonne from below $150. Prices have since retreated to about $350 to $400 a tonne, as farmers hit by the credit crisis and falling grain prices slashed their potash usage. "With BHP coming in, if there is some reasonable discipline among all the players, you could still maintain a price level that is from a high-$200 to a mid-$300 range, which is still extremely profitable," said Neivert. But pricing in this range could imperil the projects of many junior explorers, whose comparatively small-scale potash projects will only generate viable returns with the price at $500 to $600 a tonne, or more. "It's been hard enough for juniors to find funding before this (BHP project), because of the expansions that Potash Corp, Mosaic and Agrium have planned," said Neivert, adding that it could become even tougher for the juniors going forward. Dawn Zhou, the chief executive of Athabasca Potash shrugs off the threat posed by BHP, but admits that junior explorers like Athabasca will have to look for more creative ways to fund their projects with prices at current levels. BMO Capital Markets analyst Joel Jackson contends that BHP's plan may adversely affect junior explorers in Saskatchewan more than it would affect a company like Mag Industries, which is pursuing a potash project in Africa, as the economics of projects differ in both places. However, not many analysts are overly optimistic about the long-term prospects for both existing potash producers and junior explorers. In a note to clients, CIBC World Markets analyst Jacob Bout said that BHP's plans for Jansen would "flatten the long end of the potash pricing curve," hurting junior potash companies. BHP's foray into the sector might also weaken the hold that potash export consortiums like BPC and Canpotex have over global markets. "The entrance of a large global mining company, such as BHP, into the potash market would arguably weaken the position of incumbent producers, as BHP has a history of running its mines flat out," said Bout.