17 Jun 2020

New Caledonia nickel ore export bids hit impasse

6:31 pm on 17 June 2020

The government of New Caledonia is poised to refer the impasse over a new mining code to the next meeting of the signatories to the Noumea Accord.

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Photo: RNZ Pacific / Walter Zweifel

Two of the three nickel mining companies running smelters in the territory each want to sell two million tons of nickel ore to Asia.

They said this would cushion the losses incurred by their processing facilities suffering from a prolonged low nickel price.

Vale of Brazil is in the process of selling its 95 percent stake in its plant in the south of the main island to Australian interests while SLN, with its smelter in Noumea, fears for its viability if it cannot sell ore to get cash.

However the pro-independence parties oppose a law change to allow such sales, describing them as a waste of a resource given that the ore was earmarked for processing onshore.

The news agency AFP quoted a government source as saying the collegial government repeatedly failed to find a majority to change the mining code and that it was unable to table a bill in Congress.

It wants to raise this at the Noumea Accord talks which are usually held in Paris once a year, bringing together pro- and anti-independence signatories under the auspices of the French prime minister.

The pro-independence side viewed the plans as a change of model, steering away from being a nickel producer to becoming an exporter of raw material.

Last month, the leader of the Palika party, which is a dominant force in the Northern province, described the export plans as disgrace, saying New Caledonians should not have to foot the bill for the mistakes of multi-nationals.

Paul Neaoutyine said he would only approve low grade nickel ore exports if it were to be used at smelters where New Caledonian interests hold a majority.

He said the Goro nickel ore deposit now held by Vale was gifted on condition that it was processed in New Caledonia.

A date for the signatories to meet is yet to be set.

The second of three possible referendums on independence from France is due to be held this year.

Originally set for 6 September, it is being deferred because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the French prime minister Edouard Philippe proposing 4 October and New Caledonia's Congress suggesting 25 October.

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Photo: AFP

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