After a decade of increasing mineral exploration activity and start-up of some new projects, PNG’s minerals sector appears to have peaked in 2012 with lower commodity prices providing the appearance of a cyclical downturn.
Until the end of 2014 the downturn in the mining sector was barely reflected in PNG’s buoyant petroleum sector with commencement of the country’s first shipments of liquefied natural gas commencing in May 2014. While the global downturn is clearly hurting the minerals sector, petroleum continues to show significant resilience despite lower than anticipated export revenues for LNG sales in 2015.
Minerals sector exhibits resilience in a period of consolidation.
In contrast to the period prior to the recent decade-long boom, the PNG resources sector is exhibiting remarkable resilience with an optimistic outlook for the future if the Government does not suddenly change the ground rules and create disincentives for new investments.
In 2002 there was a widespread expectation that much of PNG’s resources sector was doomed to closure in the current decade, including the ending of oil production and closure of the Ok Tedi copper-gold and Porgera gold mines. Today the situation is vastly different. Ok Tedi has been through a mine-life extension program and is expected to remain in production, albeit at a reduced level, at least until 2025. Porgera continues to produce half a million ounces of gold annually and should be in production for another decade.
The much longer-life Lihir gold mine, which commenced production in 1997, is the most challenged current venture. Despite some huge investments, technical issues faced at the mine, including refractory gold in an active geothermal zone, contribute to a tussle between international gold prices and production costs. Its current owner, Australia’s Newcrest Ltd, believes current initiatives could further reduce its cost profile in the coming year or two and position Lihir for a brighter long-term future. Lihir remains PNG’s largest gold producer.
Legislative changes in 2003 that made the minerals sector more attractive to investors, along with commodity price increases in subsequent years, resulted in an unprecedented level of exploration and development activity around the country.
New mines opened in the ensuing period included the 80,000 oz a year Simberi mine, now undergoing expansion; the small Sinivit heap leach mine, which has since closed; the gold-silver Hidden Valley mine and the US$2.1 billion Ramu Nickel mine, the first mine in PNG to be owned and operated by a Chinese company, China Metallurgical Group Corp or MCC.
Export of nickel and cobalt – both firsts for PNG – began in March 2012 with the lateritic nickel venture expected to ramp up to full design capacity of 31,150 tonnes of contained nickel and 3,300 tonnes of cobalt in 2016.
Effects of the global mining downturn
Exploration sector takes big hit: As mineral prices strengthened in the past decade the strongest impact was felt on PNG’s minerals exploration sector. By the time these exploration activities hit a peak, the Minerals Resources Authority, a regulatory body of the PNG Government, reported that by March 2012 the country had 299 exploration licenses and 275 applications for exploration license taken by an estimated 132 different companies. “Almost 80-90 percent of the country is under tenements. In 2006, just prior to the establishment of MRA, less than 5 % of the country was under tenements,” MRA reported in its Mining and Exploration Bulletin for January to June 2012.
More recent figures are not available from MRA. Many juniors have either pulled out of mineral exploration activities or sharply curtailed their activities in the face of an inability to raise risk finance through listed vehicles in Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Nearly all junior companies that attracted farm-in partners from among the majors have seen their partners walk away, sometimes after spending considerable sums. Among those that have pulled out of these deals are Ok Tedi, Barrick Gold, Newcrest Mining, Vale and Newmont.
In contrast to the period prior to 2002 though, it has not been all bad news. Despite current levels of uncertainty, Highlands Pacific has attracted a global major, Anglo American. The latter is entering PNG for the first time to embark on an exploration campaign for a copper-gold prospect in PNG’s Star Mountains on a number of exciting exploration licence areas that are not far from PNG’s oldest operating mine at Ok Tedi. A US$10 million drilling campaign commenced in April 2015.
Highlands Pacific also signed a MoU with a Japanese trading house, Sojitz, to test the feasibility of a direct shipment lateritic ore project from Sewa Bay, Normandy Island in Milne Bay Province.
The only major to have continued with a significant grassroots exploration effort, South Africa’s Harmony Gold, a 50:50 partner with Newcrest in the Hidden Valley project, has had a very active exploration program in Morobe Province and some nearby areas. Recently it announced a significant copper-gold discovery in PNG’s Hela Province, which is located in the same minerals belt as Ok Tedi, Porgera and Freeport’s Grasberg mine in Indonesia’s West Papua.
While Harmony will significantly lift expenditure at the Kili Teke prospect in Hela, the Chamber understands that overall exploration spending by Harmony in PNG will be drastically slashed in 2016. (One diamond drill hole at Kili Teke intersected 202 metres averaging 0.74% copper and 0.57 g/t gold.)
Development and planning progresses on advanced projects: Foremost among the new projects is the deep-sea mining venture of Toronto-listed Nautilus Minerals. Nautilus is already building what will be the world’s first Seafloor Production System and Production Support Vessel that will mine copper and gold from massive seafloor sulphide deposits some 1,600 metres below the surface of the Bismarck Sea. The ‘Solwara 1’ project site is in deep waters between New Ireland and East New Britain Provinces. Mining is tipped to start in 2017.
Another project that MRA has converted from an exploration licence into a production licence is the Woodlark Gold project of Kula Gold. Located on Woodlark Island in Milne Bay Province, the mine is expected to process 1.8 million tonnes of ore annually with a reserve grade that averages 2.2 grams of gold per tonne.
Another newcomer with a mineral production licence is the Crater Mountain Gold project – the company was formerly called Gold Anomaly. Crater Mountain is about to commence small-scale gold production from its high-grade zone at Crater Mountain with the aim of using the cash flow generated to carry out further exploration on the deeper potential of Crater Mountain in Eastern Highlands. Following approval from MRA, it aims to produce about 10,000 ounces a year from a high-grade operation.
Current status of major operating mines
|Mine||Metals||Mine Life||Output per annum|
|Ok Tedi||Au, Cu||10 yrs?||500,000oz Au; 170 000t Cu|
|Porgera||Au, Ag||15 yrs||500,000oz Au; 90,000oz Ag|
|Lihir||Au, Ag||15 yrs||800,000oz Au|
|Ramu||Ni, Co||20 yrs +||31,000t Ni; 3,300t Co|
|Hidden Valley||Au, Ag||10 yrs +||200,000oz Au|
PNG’s Pipeline of Potential Future Mining Projects
|Solwara 1||Submarine massive sulphide (deep sea mining)||ML granted January 2011, mining expected to commence in 2018||Nautilus Minerals|
|Woodlark||Medium epithermal gold||ML granted in July 2014||Kula Gold|
|Hessen Bay||Iron Sands||ML application||Katana Iron|
|Frieda River||Large porphyry Cu-Au||Feasibility||PanAust|
|Yandera||Large porphyry Cu-Mo||Feasibility||Marengo Mining|
|Wafi-Golpu||Epithermal gold (Wafi) and large porphyry Cu-Au (Golpu)||Pre-feasibility||Harmony/ Newcrest Mining|
Composition of the PNG Mining Industry
PNG has been successful in attracting a broad cross section of mineral companies comprising a large number of junior companies as well as a group of larger international companies, including world leaders. This is a healthy situation for the industry as the juniors are often the most aggressive explorers, but it is the larger players that underwrite the joint ventures that provide exploration funds and ultimately balance sheet muscle for any possible developments.
PNG has a portfolio of mining projects spread across the country. The large projects dominate: Barrick Gold’s Porgera gold mine, Ok Tedi copper mine, Newcrest’s Lihir gold mine, Newcrest-Harmony’s Hidden Valley gold mine and MCC’s Ramu nickel-cobalt project.
|Barrick||Ok Tedi Mining||Nautilus Minerals|
|Newcrest||MCC Ramu NiCo||St Barbara|
|Rio Tinto||Anglo American||Petromin PNG|
|PanAust||Marengo Mining||Kula Gold|
|Zijin||Crater Gold Mining|
|Plus more than 20 juniors engaged in exploration in all nineteen provinces and offshore; and sixty thousand small-scale miners.|