May 3, 2019 / 6:45 AM / 19 days ago

Australian battery materials plant eyes financing deal by end-June

GREENVALE, Australia (Reuters) - Nickel miner Australian Mines hopes to lock in funds for a planned A$1.3 billion ($935 million) battery materials plant by end-June, its chief executive said, despite volatile prices that have crimped lending to the new energy sector.

An Australian Mines employee walks towards an old nickel mine that the company plans to restart as part of a plan to produce minerals for electric vehicle batteries in Greenvale, Queensland, Australia April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Sonali Paul

The company is talking with South Korean battery maker SK Innovation to finalize an offtake agreement after reaching a preliminary deal in March 2018. At the same time, it is chasing lenders for its Sconi nickel-cobalt chemicals project in northern Australia.

“It’s a resources project with a large capex and we are asking for a lot of money,” Managing Director Benjamin Bell told Reuters of the project that would restart a shuttered nickel mine in rural Queensland state.

“We are hopeful that we will get everything wrapped up by the end of June,” he said.

Australian Mines was one of more than half a dozen Australian and Canadian developers of cobalt-nickel deposits talking with battery and automakers last year as cobalt and nickel prices soared on an anticipated boom in electric vehicles.

Since then, cobalt prices have crashed as forecasts for a surge in demand have been pushed out, while a wave of new supply — mainly out of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the world’s biggest producer — prompted investors to exit. BlackRock and Oppenheimer Funds sold their stakes in Australian Mines last year.

The price reversal has left banks cautious on lending, even as companies look to add value by moving into the next stage of processing.

Australian Mines aims to produce 53,300 tonnes of nickel sulphate and 8,500 of cobalt sulphate a year, making it a sizeable producer of the materials used in lithium batteries for electric vehicles.

“These projects have good orebodies and good reserves. Prices have come down but I still think they are coming ahead ... the market is looking promising for these projects,” said analyst Leonard Rowe at consultancy AME Group.

Despite the need to finalize financing, Rowe said he expected the Sconi project to start in 2022.

“I still think it goes ahead.”

Cobalt prices have turned up in recent weeks and Macquarie Bank expects prices to double from current levels by 2024, while nickel prices - still down by a fifth from last year’s peaks - have climbed 15 percent this year.

Australian supply is also expected to benefit from concerns over the use of child labor in the DRC. German carmaker BMW said last week it will buy cobalt directly from mines in Australia and Morocco.

Bell said the company is speaking with a consortium of six to eight Australian and global banks, and is looking at debt and equity combinations including pre-payments and royalties.

A deal with SK Innovation would allow it to tap the firm’s credit rating to open bank lines, and could also include a cornerstone investment.

SK Innovation confirmed that talks were ongoing but declined further comment.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne, and Heekyong Yang and Jane Chung in SEOUL; editing by Richard Pullin

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