No Port of Call for BHP Billiton

Jansen mine shaft. Source: BHP Billiton

Potash may become BHP Billiton's (NYSE: BHP  ) "fifth pillar" over time, but the potential held by its massive Jansen project in Saskatchewan will have to be achieved without dedicated port facilities. The world's biggest miner let lapse an exclusivity agreement it held with the Port of Vancouver to develop a terminal where the fertilizer ingredient would be loaded onto ships head for Asia.

Following the failure of BHP to acquire PotashCorp of Saskatchewan (NYSE: POT  ) in 2010 after the Canadian government balked at the possibility the miner would withdraw from the Canpotex marketing association and sell potash on its own (the government receives huge revenue streams from the group), Billiton chose instead to develop Jansen, committing $2.6 billion into the site, spread out over several years, and bringing its total commitment to the mine to about $3.8 billion.

The export terminal at the Port of Vancouver was an integral part of the plan from the beginning. The near-100 acre site was expected to generate thousands of temporary construction jobs, inject at least $250 million in private capital investment, and substantially increase the cargo tonnage leaving the port. BHP and the port were originally supposed to come to an agreement by the end of 2012, but the breakup of the Belarusian Potash Corp. cartel created a tumult in the market, sending prices for potash tumbling, and causing BHP to adopt a go-slow approach. In an email to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the miner was abandoning the exclusive arrangement it held, Billiton said it would allow management to "to actively investigate and assess alternative rail and port options."

The plan had called for BHP to ship potash by rail to the port, where it would then be loaded onto ships bound primarily for Asia. The miner had been in negotiations with Canadian Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe for rail rates to bring the potash to port. Yet as negotiations dragged on, BHP wanted assurances some high-tech additions were made, such as being able to automate the movement of potash-laden rail cars. The port was agreeable and noted BHP would reimburse it almost $20 million for the work. It became clear though that the depressed state of the market would mean BHP would pass on the investment.

Although China has since stabilized the market by setting a floor on potash's price at $305 per metric tonne, that's still a quarter of the price it was selling at in 2013 and almost two-thirds below the near-$900 per metric tonne price it hit back in 2009. As a result, BHP is cleaning house. The miner is shedding all non-core businesses and focusing on just its five pillars: iron ore, petroleum, copper, coal, and potash. Gone or going are assets like nickel, manganese, and aluminum.

Who might be interested in the port facilities is still open, but Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO  ) is certainly a possibility. Earlier this year it quietly revealed it was sitting atop a Tier 1 deposit at its KP405 potash lease in Saskatchewan's Elk Point Basin. Where Jansen abutted PotashCorp's own deposits, Rio's lease is close to Jansen's backyard and it's estimated to be one of the biggest in the world, containing some 329 million tons of potash. Another possibility is Mosaic  (NYSE: MOS  ) , which owns the Esterhazy project that is the world's largest potash mine, with an annual capacity of 5.3 million tonnes. Potash production is limited to just 12 countries, with Canada controlling more than half of the world's reserves, mostly in Saskatchewan.

Potash is on firmer ground, pricing has stabilized, and demand remains high. The Jansen project (and Rio's KP405 lease) are long-term developments meaning that they'll be coming online well after the current turbulence is a memory. Other options for shipment overseas will likely become available as well, perhaps even this port, but BHP Billiton won't be on the hook for its development.

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