Nationalist mining rules in Indonesia spell trouble ahead

This picture taken in Kereng Pengi, Pontianak on August 24, 2013 shows a general view of Kereng Pengi traditional gold mining as the sun sets.

Mining firms seem to assume that the nationalist policies now buffeting the industry are all to do with Indonesia's 2014 elections and that there will be a general retreat once a new government has had a chance for a rethink.

But is that really the case? Logic would suggest otherwise, unless it all goes south far quicker than anyone imagines - as happened with the government's efforts to create beef self-sufficiency out of thin air.

The Mines and Energy Ministry has long been under the control of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party, which has been so hard hit by corruption cases it can't hope to win back votes by playing the nationalist card. Its coalition partners have little to gain either.

After all, nearly two-thirds of the electorate live in Java, where there are few mines and voters pay little attention to such issues. Nor, for that matter, do most of the country's voters.

It is wiser to remember the winds of economic patriotism began with the 2009 Mining Law. This legislation erased the Contract of Work regime, imposed a 2014 ban on ore exports and laid out an onerous divestment schedule for foreign firms.

With that in mind, it is clear that current policies are being driven by other factors. Some are founded on a genuine desire for value-add. But many have also been hijacked by self-interest groups with campaign finance in mind and little regard for the impact on a widening trade deficit.

The mining law calls only for more processing and refining. But a ministerial regulation issued three years later added tough new requirements, many of which are either impractical, technically unfeasible or economically unworkable.

"There's no economic nationalism," a senior government official told The Straits Times in a scathing off-the-record conversation. "It's just people playing with licences and regulations. They don't know they are managing such an important sector."

The post-election outlook may not be any brighter. Indeed, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri's Democrat Party-Struggle (PDI-P), which looks well placed to head the next government, is probably the most nationalist of all the political parties.

Golkar, running second in the polls and almost certainly the prospective senior partner in any PDI-P-led coalition, retains connections to some of Indonesia's most powerful business interests who see the value in waving the nationalist flag.

If wiser heads do finally prevail, it almost certainly won't happen under the current government. And even then, given the glacial pace of lawmaking in Indonesia, it will take two years or more for any new government to row back into calmer waters.

Slowly but surely, things are coming to a head. If the administration sticks to its Jan 12 ban on mineral ore exports, the industry will come to a virtual standstill, and hurt state revenues and the country's balance of payments.

Mining analysts estimate it will mean an annual US$7.5 billion (S$9.3 billion) loss in export earnings - US$3.9 billion from copper, US$1.4 billion from bauxite, US$1.1 billion from nickel and US$1.1 billion from anode slime - gold and silver from the sole copper smelter in East Java.

And that's not all. Smaller- scale enterprises, mining everything from zircon and manganese to lead, zinc and iron-sand, can't afford the extra cost of a feasibility study, let alone a processor that is now required.

Most rational people agree the ban requires an emergency exit. But what if the two largest firms, Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold and Newmont Mining, which already provide 30 per cent of their output to the existing smelter, refuse to play ball?

While both have made a half-hearted commitment to processing all their concentrate in-country, will they be ready to post a proposed US$200 million bond as a guarantee that they will build a smelter themselves? They have already said they won't do this.

Shutting down operations would be a disaster, not only for the country's balance of payments situation, but also for the poor eastern Indonesian regions where the two mines provide much of the economic lifeblood. Now in the middle of a US$10 billion underground expansion, Freeport provides 30,000 jobs and contributes half of Papua's gross domestic product. Newmont's revenues represent 85 per cent of the Sumbawa provincial government's income.

Critics say the performance bond for the smelter should be paid by the two or three local firms who have shown an interest in building smelters.

Why they would want to get involved in such a marginally profitable business is a puzzle, but it may be motivated by the assumption that Freeport and Newmont will be forced to sell their ore at cut-rate prices.

It would appear so, though there's talk in the industry that the locally owned ventures may be getting financial backing from Chinese state enterprises, told by the Beijing government to get out and invest. For China, managing the output of smelters in Indonesia would allow it to take another step towards controlling the copper market and breaking up the existing cartel of producers, bankers and merchants.

What makes it all so baffling is the copper concentrate produced by Freeport and Newmont already represents 95 per cent of the total value of the finished metal, more so than the 70 per cent processing requirement of the two existing nickel smelters.

Smelting, the Mitsubishi-run East Java smelter that has barely turned a profit since it was built with Freeport in 1996, has threatened to close the facility if the export ban goes ahead. It will have to, even if it means cutting off the supply of sulphuric acid to an adjacent fertiliser plant.

Sale of the anode slime, which results from separating copper from other metals, is the difference between the company keeping its head above water and drowning in red ink.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com


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