Global giants eye $7 billion Kiwi
By GARRY SHEERAN - Sunday Star Times
Under the radar and in many cases under the sea some of the biggest names in global mining are moving in on New Zealand's undeveloped mineral wealth.
Mining giants Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals, respectively the second and third biggest iron ore producers in the world, are surveying the ore-rich west coast of the North Island, whose shoreline sands are estimated to be worth $26 billion at January 2008 prices.
Fortescue's New Zealand subsidiary FMG Pacific was last month granted two prospecting permits for just over 12,000km2 of coastline both on and offshore running from below the Kaipara Harbour to the top of the North Island.
In April, Fortescue was also granted offshore prospecting permits running north from New Plymouth and comprising 1523km2.
New Zealand's ironsand deposits are the most extensive and the most concentrated in iron in the world. Typical iron content in west coast beach sands is 20-25% iron in weight.
Besides rich iron-ore sands, for which there is huge demand in China for steel making, Fortescue is also surveying for precious metals including lead, zinc, magnesium, silver, aluminium, tin and copper. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto has two applications pending on exploration permits for offshore Taranaki and Waikato.
The undeveloped potential of New Zealand's mineral wealth has moved into the spotlight as the government looks for ways to match this country's standard of living with Australia's often called the "Lucky Country" because of its mineral wealth.
A total 70% of New Zealand's mineral wealth is on or in conservation lands and the government has asked Crown Minerals to review areas with significant mineral potential that could be worth millions if removed from Department of Conservation control.
Already there's talk of a minerals boom in New Zealand after nearly two decades when exploration spending and the rate mineral permit and licence applications have remained at a low level.
But, says mining analyst John Kidd, the minerals rush has already begun in those parts of New Zealand not under the conservation estate, and where prospectivity is good.
"Quietly, and for the most part out of the public gaze, some really big names are already here, and they are very serious about the potential in our iron sands," says Kidd, of brokers McDouall Stuart.
Another mining analyst said: "The whole process is a lot further advanced than many Kiwis think, and it is in areas available for exploration now." The west coasts of both islands are being targeted, with almost the entire North
Island west coast now under
The permits run for up to five years. During that time, the mining companies will be mapping sea beds and taking samples, says Kidd. If they decide to mine, they will then have to apply for mining licences and go through extensive resource consent processes.
However, he says some of the numbers now being talked about show rich prizes, not just for the mining companies but also for New Zealand.
Kidd says a significant, but "very feasible" mining operation could produce up to 50 million tonnes of iron sands a year. "That's a top-end figure, but it's what is being talked about."
With iron ore prices around $US100 a tonne, that would mean just one successful iron ore project could earn up to $7 billion a year at current forex rates, enough to halve New Zealand's balance of payments deficit.
"The impact of the Tui oil field on New Zealand's external account during 2007-08 is part testament to what can happen, and Tui was not a large field by international standards," Kidd says.