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By John Helmer in Moscow

Russia’s big copper contest goes on the boil

Russia’s biggest copper contest is going to be a very private affair. Even if there are just two, possibly three contenders, all Russian household names, predicting who will win over the next 90 days of the contest may prove to be more frustrating than it looks.

Forecasting the award of rich state assets like these, over the transition period between the two Russian presidents, should be a reminder of the ancient Harpies. Zeus, the Greek god, was so jealous of Phineas, the man who knew too much, he sent him to an island, sat him down at a dinner-table, and loaded it with food, which the Harpies would fly in to steal, before Phineas had a chance to eat. The Harpies – three winged creatures, with feminine bodices and monster trunks – left their guano behind to make Phineas feel even worse about his appetite.

Udokan, located in the southeastern Siberian region of Chita, near the Chinese border, isn’t made of guano. The largest unmined deposit of copper in Russia, and one of the largest in the world, Russian studies indicated a year ago that its mineable ore reserves break down into sulfides 43%, mixed 40%, and oxides 17%. Official reserves, according to the Russian classification, amount to 1,310.8 million tonnes of ore, 19.7 million tonnes of copper (average grade 1.51%) and 11,900 tonnes of silver (average grade 9.6 g/t). International studies, which include BHP and Bateman, estimate Udokan reserves at 27 million tonnes of copper. At current copper prices, this is a feast worth more than $170 billion, plus another $7 billion for the silver.

Chita region officials have told Mineweb the terms of a contest to award the Udokan mining licence have now been finalized with the federal Ministry of Natural Resources, and these should be published tomorrow. Bidders will then have 90 days to qualify and lodge their bids. An unrefundable deposit to qualify has been fixed at Rb4.5 billion ($191 million). A minimum investment of $1.6 billion must be invested in the mine, and a production threshold has been fixed at 187,000 tonnes per annum; that represents 15% of current Russian copper output.

The bar has also been set to exclude foreign copper miners, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Kazakhmys, the Chileans, and the Chinese. Udokan’s reserves are so large, they are classified as a national strategic reserve, according to new legislation that has passed the State Duma, but has yet to be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. Putin has less than a month to complete his term, however, before he moves to the prime ministry, and Dmitri Medvedev is inaugurated the new president.

The haste with which Udokan is being offered indicates that someone wants to lock in the contest, and the outcome, before the reshuffle of government positions begins. But foreign miners are excluded, not by the new legislation, but by the informal process that has been adopted for awarding the mining licence. According to the regional government sources, the mining right will not be auctioned in open bidding. Instead, the federal and regional governments have agreed to a silent tender. That’s a process by which bidders submit their proposals in sealed envelopes to a closed-door commission of government officials, who will then review them, before deciding their selection of the winner. The scheme is a front. The award is decided by the Kremlin.

This is also a formula for an insider with considerable political clout to overcome a bidder with a lot of cash. It was a formula tried, but not accepted by the government, in the March contest for the award of potash licences at Verkhekamskoye (see Mineweb, March 20). The outcome there and then was an auction, with the result that the cash bidding went too high for the participants. The commission formula for Verkhnekamskoye was favoured by the state metals and mining conglomerate called Russian Technologies, formerly known as Rosoboronexport, and run by Sergei Chemezov. Sources close to Chemezov, and the Chita governor, believe he favoured the commission formula for Udokan, because he aims to win.

Chemezov has been putting together a group of mining assets that are essential to the production of the main metals consumed by Russia’s defence industries. The group already owns VSMPO, Russia’s titanium producer; and several specialty steel producers. It also has interests in mining local carnallite and molybdenum.

A bid by Chemezov for Udokan’s copper would be a new direction for the group, but not a surprise. A source close to Chemezov told Mineweb that he will not comment on Udokan right now, but he implied that the group is preparing an announcement. Unknown for the time being is what mining company or operator Chemezov has picked for his partner.

The two major Russian copper producers have long confirmed that they are contenders for Udokan – Norilsk Nickel, controlled by Vladimir Potanin, which produced 423,000 tonnes of copper in 2007; and Urals Mining and Metallurgical Company (UMMC), controlled by Iskander Makhmudov, whose copper output last year was 354,000 tonnes (2006).

It is conceivable that Chemezov and Potanin have struck a deal. Officially, Norilsk Nickel has said in the past it is a contender, but now it is saying nothing. Unofficially, Norilsk Nickel is not denying reports in the Russian press that it has decided to drop out of the contest.

One of Norilsk Nickel’s reasons is that the cost of Udokan is too high to finance, since controlling shareholder Potanin is now obliged to scrape together every rouble he can find to buy off co-shareholder, Mikhail Prokhorov. Another of Potanin’s reasons is reportedly that he has been told the Kremlin favours a single bid, and a single outcome – that’s Makhmudov. A third reason is that, with comfortable copper reserves to prevent a significant drop in its copper business, Norilsk Nickel’s expansion strategy is better aimed now towards iron-ore, in its takeover of the Metalloinvest assets Makhmudov, who declined to speak directly to Mineweb this week, has never been a popular figure politically, at least not in Moscow. But acknowledging that this is now a political contest, Makhmudov’s company has selected the Russian Railways Company (RZD) chief, Vladimir Yakunin, as its lobbyist for the licence. In a calculated press leak early in the week, RZD confirmed it has joined a consortium to bid for Udokan with Makhmudov, and Vnesheconombank, the state debt banker, pension fund manager, and development financier.

RZD will contribute a partly built railway link to the neighboring Chineiskoye deposit and will be responsible for infrastructure development to the remote Udokan site, Yakunin’s spokesman said.
Makhmudov’s UMMC group needs to win more keenly than Norilsk Nickel, for the latter has substantially more reserves (up to 26 million tonnes of estimated reserves and resources) to sustain its refinery output. UMMC is reluctant to disclose how much copper ore the group is mining annually. The number is sensitive, because UMMC has admitted it is running out of ore sources to keep feeding its smelters, most of which are located in central Russia.

Udokan has been the focus of Russian and international mining interest for more than a decade. First identified by Soviet geologists before the end of the Soviet Union, the deposit’s size has encouraged a variety of small entrepreneurs to speculate on its development. In 1992 BHP lost a bid for the right to do a feasibility study at Udokan as a preliminary to deciding whether to go ahead with a mine. The Australian major lost out to the Arter Group, a group of Russian companies headed by a small entrepreneur from Chita, Andrei Chuguyevsky. He won the mining licence in January 1993. Chuguyevsky’s foreign partners, however, failed to provide the promised financing, and the Australian Stock Exchange in Sydney intervened to suspend trading in the shares of a company claiming to hold a stake in the deposit. Chuguyevsky then offered participation in the project to Anglo American and Bateman. Eight years later, Chuguyevsky lost the licence for lack of investment in the project. Chuguyevsky did financially better out of De Beers, and was last heard of investing in hotels in Morocco.

Back on the Chita frontier, UMMC hired Bateman to follow Chuguyevsky; over several years it has provided UMMC with the most precise valuation of the deposit reserves, and costing of the mine development options presently available. Bateman also acknowledged to Mineweb that the site is in a potentially dangerous earthquake zone.

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