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Although investors seem to turn a blind eye to coal, the same certainly can not be said with respect to the leading industrial nations of the world.
South Korea is in a tizzy, and Japan is aghast -- all because of one coal mine? That's because this is not just any coal mine. This is Tavan Tolgoi, the Mongolian behemoth that hosts the world's foremost mother lode of the coveted coking coal used to make steel. The deposit contains more than 6 billion tons of coal, comprising about 4.5 billion tons of thermal coal and 1.5 billion tons of the higher-priced steelmaking variety.
Earlier this week, Mongolia's state-owned Erdenes MGL, which owns the mine, announced the results of a long-running and contentious bidding process to join the international consortium that will take on an estimated $7.3 billion construction project to build a world-class mine at Tavan Tolgoi. Approximately 50% of the deposit is subject to the consortium, while the present owner intends to mine the rest. China Shenhua Energy (OTC BB: CUAEF.PK) won the largest slice of bituminous pie with a 40% stake in the project, followed by a Russian-led coalition that received 36%, and U.S.-based coal miner Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) with a welcome 24% stake.
But wait; hold the presses! Before the ink had even dried on that long-awaited announcement, Erdenes MGL indicated that the outcome "is not final yet" after South Korea's energy ministry protested vociferously against a process that it claims was "unclear and unfair." Arguably, the stakes are highest for manufacturing-focused economies like South Korea and Japan that lack domestic sources of key raw materials. Korean steelmaker POSCO (NYSE: PKX ) , which had been included within a Japanese-South Korean consortium that vied for a share of the project, has found itself victim to powerful margin squeezes before, and effective vertical integration into major sources of raw materials offers perhaps the best defense. No doubt steelmaker ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT ) had similar motivations behind its failed bid for a share.
Brazilian iron-ore giant Vale (NYSE: VALE ) tried to leap further into the met-coal market to more effectively compete with leaders such as BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP ) in pricing negotiations with steelmakers, but I suspect that manufacturing interests among the competing bidders may have exerted pressure against the miner's bid.
Even if the consortium is ultimately tweaked from the initial composition, it is clear that Peabody Energy will retain a significant chunk of this world-class coal project. Details on the proposed project are closely kept, but the mine may initially produce about 30 million tons of coal per year. Based upon a 24% stake, and a roughly estimated product mix of 75% thermal coal and 25% met coal, that could yield 7.2 million tons of coal per year (including 1.8 million tons of met coal) for Peabody's share. For reference, all of Peabody's export-focused operations in Australia combined yielded 27 million tons of coal during 2010, including 9.8 million tons of met coal. Given the scale of the resource, I would look for the consortium to potentially enhance Mongolia's export infrastructure to accommodate greater annual output. For investors seeking their own slice of this world-class coal deposit, Peabody Energy is the vehicle of choice.