BHP Billiton Ltd., the world's biggest mining company, may end up "mothballing" its Canadian potash project by the end of this decade after completing two shafts at a cost of about $2.6-billion.
The shafts at the giant potash deposit in Saskatchewan are now at a depth of about 600 metres, with a further 300 to 400 metres to go, chief executive officer Andrew Mackenzie told analysts and investors in London on Tuesday. Upon their completion in 2018 or 2019, the board will decide whether to build the mine, he said.
"It's certainly perfectly possible, if at that time the market is not going to be ready for potash, say, in three years subsequently, that we could mothball the shafts once we've completed them," Mackenzie said.
The comments are the most pessimistic the CEO has been on a project that the company describes as the world's best undeveloped potash resource. The Jansen project is about 60 per cent complete with about $200-million left to spend in fiscal 2017. Mackenzie said recent progress at Jansen indicated the final cost will likely be below $2.6-billion.
The miner has slowed development amid a slump in prices for the crop nutrient. BHP has previously flagged potash as a potential key division for future growth, identifying the fertilizer as a priority alongside existing coal, copper, iron ore and petroleum units to tap rising consumption and an expanding middle class across Asia.
When asked if mothballing the project would be a palatable outcome for investors Mackenzie said: "It might be more palatable to them than going ahead with a project that wasn't economically attractive."
"The cost of mothballing would be reasonably small," he added. "Obviously at that point we'd have to examine whether or not that was something we wanted to stay in for the long term. We have the flexibility to wait and time our entry into the market."
The company is continuing talks with potential partners in the project, Mackenzie said.
Potash prices have tumbled amid increased production. Farmers are spending less on fertilizer amid bumper crops and lower agricultural commodity prices. Rival producer Potash Corp. idled one of its mines in January in response to the oversupply. In July, U.S. fertilizer producer Mosaic Co. announced plans to idle its potash mine in Colonsay, Sask., for the rest of 2016.
Potash prices in the Gulf of Mexico have fallen 38 per cent over the past year to $190 a tonne, according to data from Green Markets. The annual benchmark price for imports into China, the biggest buyer, was signed at $219 a tonne in July by Belarusian Potash Co. While the price fell 30 per cent from last year and is the cheapest in almost 12 years, it exceeded forecasts, according to Raiffeisenbank AO.
Jansen's development requires a long-term potash price of more than $400 a tonne to achieve an acceptable rate of return and probably more than $500 a ton to compete for capital against BHP's other growth options, Macquarie Group Ltd. analysts wrote in a February note.
Still, K+S AG, Europe's biggest potash producer, said last week it expects to see the bottom in the market this year.
"Our estimates still suggest that some time in the next decade you are going to need a new large greenfield mine, and the longer things go on and no other projects get announced, and given the costs of ours and so, it would look to many observers as the obvious candidate," Mackenzie said.