Indonesian nickel boom claims another WA mine, and hundreds of jobs

Battery minerals specialist IGO will close its Cosmos nickel mine in Western Australia’s Goldfields region at the cost of about 400 jobs as cheap production from Indonesia wreaks havoc with Australian producers.

IGO chief executive Ivan Vella said the ability of Indonesian nickel miners to cost-effectively build new mines and processing plants and bring them to full capacity had caught the market by surprise.

IGO’s Cosmos nickel mine in Western Australia.
IGO’s Cosmos nickel mine in Western Australia.

Vella, presenting his first results since joining IGO from Rio Tinto in December, said the recent nickel price plunge meant it would not be prudent to bring the new mine into full production.

A recent review of Cosmos determined the mine life would be less than planned while expected operating and capital costs had increased. IGO’s Nova and Forrestania nickel mines will stay open.

“It’s a very difficult situation where we’ve invested so much money into the asset,” Vella said on Wednesday.

IGO obtained the Cosmos project when it took over ASX-listed Western Areas for $1.3 billion in 2022.

The market was kind to the enlarged firm for a while, but since mid-2023 its share price has more than halved. Vella said IGO would publish an independent review into the acquisition in February.

IGO’s Cosmos call ends a dreadful month for the WA nickel sector which employs 9000 people, with Andrew Forrest’s Wyloo Metals, Canadian First Quantum Minerals and small player Panoramic Resources all closing mines and BHP trimming its processing capacity.

Advertisement

There could be more bad news when BHP announces its plans for its 2500-worker WA nickel business in February.

IGO, which shed most of its gold production to focus on the battery minerals nickel and lithium, is facing a difficult market for both products.

The Perth-based miner holds 49 per cent of a joint venture with China’s Tianqi which is building a lithium refinery in Kwinana south of Perth, and owns half of the giant Greenbushes lithium mine in WA’s south-west, which according to Vella is its cornerstone asset.

Vella said IGO was facing an array of complex engineering and design challenges getting the Kwinana refinery into full production, but the effort was not throwing good money after bad.

On Monday, IGO announced its joint venture with Tianqi and US miner Albemarle, which owns the other half of Greenbushes, had decided to cut production by about 20 per cent. The move was in response to weak prices for the battery ingredient due to supply growth outpacing a lower-than-expected increase in electric vehicle sales.

However, Vella said the operation, which produced a concentrate of the lithium ore spodumene for a cash cost of $357 a tonne last quarter for an average sale price of $US3016 a tonne ($4590), could generate strong margins throughout a commodity cycle.

The new chief executive said he would alter IGO’s underlying strategy of supporting the energy transition away from fossil fuels: “We’re in the business of battery minerals.”

Liontown Resources, a new entrant to that same space, said its Kathleen Valley lithium mine was within budget and on schedule to start production mid-year. Last week, Liontown pushed back plans for expanding the mine after a consortium of banks withdrew a $760 million debt package due to a weaker near-term outlook for the battery ingredient.

“To reduce our debt loading, we’ve got to reduce our aspirations around growth. We are not going to bring volume into a market that is seeing oversupply,” Liontown boss Tony Ottaviano said.

Mining executives met with federal Resources Minister Madeleine King last week for crisis talks about the critical minerals sector after volatility in prices for lithium spodumene, nickel and other rare earth minerals.

Ottaviano said government funding agencies should take the lead to help underpin critical mineral and battery projects and encourage commercial banks in the lending process.

IGO shares closed 2.2 per cent lower at $7.56, while Liontown rose 0.5 per cent to $1.03 as the local sharemarket hit an all-time high.

The Market Recap newsletter is a wrap of the day’s trading. Get it each weekday afternoon.

Most Viewed in Business

Source: Thanks smh.com