NEW YORK – Brazilian miner Vale, the world's top nickel producer, plans to invest $500-million in its struggling New Caledonia nickel mine on its own after previously vowing to find a partner for the venture.
Vale's decision to invest in the project alone, from 2019 to 2022, reflects the company's new understanding of the importance of an expected surge in electric vehicle (EV) sales, CEO Fabio Schvartsman said on Tuesday.
"The decision to continue on our own was made because (New Caledonia) could be a very important part of strategy to supply nickel especially given the EV revolution," he told journalists after Vale's investor day presentation in New York. "We thought initially that we could have a partner but it was in a moment when we had no clarity on the incoming EV revolution."
Nickel, a key input for most types of lithium-ion batteries, including those used in electric cars, hit multi-month lows last week as demand worries escalated on Chinese steel price weakness and US-Sino trade tensions.
Over-budget and years late when it started up in 2010, the New Caledonia project, located on a Pacific island, accumulated nearly $1.3-billion in losses from 2014 to 2016. The operation's woes stand in contrast to Vale's main iron ore business, which has been churning out cash in recent quarters thanks to improving prices and robust demand from China.
Vale on Tuesday lowered 2019 output forecasts for nickel, also used to make stainless steel, to 244 000 t of nickel next year, below the 263 000 t it had forecast a year ago.
Away from New Caledonia, Vale said it had reached a deal with global trader and miner Glencore to jointly explore Vale's Victor mine for copper and nickel and Glencore's Nickel Rim South mines, both based in Canada, citing reduced costs and capital expenses thanks to the venture.
The Brazilian miner maintained its outlook for iron-ore production at 390-million tonnes for this year and 400-million tonnes for 2019 and 2020.
Schvartsman, whose two-year term is up in May, reiterated his interest in staying on and said discussions were ongoing about his future role, including the possibility to renew his contract.
"We are going to come to an agreement. I couldn't have more fun than I have running this company," Schvartsman said.
Vale said it spent $360-million on expenses related to the cleanup of the deadly collapse of the Samarco tailings dam it owns jointly with BHP Group but executives declined to comment on the state of talks with the venture's bondholders.
But a source with knowledge of the matter said the two companies had begun talks with Samarco bondholders two weeks ago. Vale expects to resume operations in 2020, so now Samarco can predict its cash flow to make a proposal to bondholders, the source added, asking for anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Brazilian financial daily Valor reported separately that Schvartsman also said the company's strategy going forward will be to make medium-sized iron ore acquisitions that have synergies with its existing mines.