Time to restock

AFTER the balance sheet clean-ups of 2015 and 2016, investors are once again demanding growth, but the miners have a challenge on their hands to find their next big opportunities.
Time to restock Time to restock Time to restock Time to restock Time to restock

Image: iStock.com/bugphai

Kristie Batten

With big-ticket M&A how most companies got themselves into trouble in the first place, the majors are increasingly looking to low-risk earlier-stage farm-in and joint venture agreements to restock their portfolios.

In the past five years, majors cut - or even shut down - exploration to focus on re-strengthening balance sheets, while there were little available funds for juniors.

King & Wood Mallesons Energy & Resources partner Rob Edel told MNN the past few years had been tough for majors and juniors alike.

"The debt markets pretty much closed down completely and equity markets almost entirely closed - not completely but it was very, very difficult for companies to raise money for exploration, and so very little spending got done on exploration relative to previous years, and that's been reflected in statistics coming through, not only in Australia, but elsewhere and there was simply little in the way of real greenfields exploration being done," he said.

"That was predicted to drive a significant shortfall in new mines and projects coming through, and that came to pass and we're now seeing the consequences of that today."

Miners are now scrambling to pick up where they left off before the downturn.

Rio Tinto has declared itself open for business and has encouraged juniors to approach it about partnership opportunities.

The company's exploration division is working with juniors across the globe, including with Antipa Minerals in Western Australia, to find the next big discoveries.

In gold, both Barrick Gold and Newmont Mining have announced major farm-in deals with companies in the Yukon district this year.

Edel said it was the majors now approaching the juniors.

"I think we've started seeing this a number of years ago in North American companies, particularly the gold sector, where there are a number of large, well-run gold companies, and what those companies have been doing for years now is effectively outsourcing their exploration team," he said.

"They've restricted the number of exploration geos they've put in the field themselves and instead, they go to juniors who have exploration projects or promising bits of ground around the world, and they enter into these strategic alliance agreements, and also a series of farm-in and JV agreements."

In Australia, Newcrest Mining has entered into at least 17 farm-in/JV deals with juniors, including seven so far this year.

It's a similar case for OZ Minerals, which has inked a number of early stage agreements to fill out its growth pipeline.

Edel said the majors were looking for many of these types of arrangements to increase the likelihood of success.

"Bearing in mind, that these teams often assess hundreds of projects every year - I'm aware of one North American gold major that does 30-40 actual joint venture agreements per year, sometimes more, and that would be the result of analysing several hundred proposals that come across the desk," he said.

Edel noted that the strategic alliance and project generation models were gaining prominence, with miners seeking to enter into "package deals" that could cover large regions and/or multiple commodities.

Newcrest recently entered a project generation alliance with Encounter Resources, while South32 has a similar strategic relationship with AusQuest.

"

I think it's quite an exciting time if you're a junior in the industry with the majors coming back in and looking for these sorts of agreements"I think it's quite an exciting time if you're a junior in the industry with the majors coming back in and looking for these sorts of agreements

"

 

"Strategic alliance agreements offer potentially huge benefits … I think we're going to see more of them and it's going to be a good thing in the longer run for the exploration industry in Australia."

Edel said Australian juniors were well-placed to attract partnerships with major miners due to their expertise and reputation.

"Australian companies, particularly the junior explorers, are very nimble, and very active in different parts of the world," he said.

"They go anywhere and often are finding really promising resources, so I think it's similar drivers pushing the process forward really stem from the need for the major companies to catch up lost time on identifying promising exploration ground."

Aside from gold, majors were seeking base metals, particularly copper, with battery metals still yet to catch on with some of the large-cap miners.

"I think the majors are often looking at projects with really large scale that can drive returns they need to satisfy their shareholders - some of the battery metals are not on that scale," he said.

"The quantities that would be required globally of these metals is still not particularly large like base metals, iron ore, coal and other minerals.

"I think they want to see larger scale and see what sort of returns can be generated by the miners in some of these more specialty metals. But once we see those metals evolve and start to generate really high returns, that may change. But for now I think they're watching, albeit closely."

But Edel warned of pitfalls of partnerships, particularly around the duration of the deal and the area covered.

"I've had a specific example where a junior entity entered into an arrangement with a major, they looked for ground together for a while, the junior did identify some promising tenements and farmed them in, and the arrangement just dragged on for a number of years - it didn't have a specific termination date and was effectively forgotten by everyone, put into a drawer and then years later, the junior had forgotten about the arrangement and made a discovery of a mineral that allegedly fell within the scope of the strategic alliance agreement," he said.

"So the major pulled that agreement out and said ‘that's terrific, you've got an obligation to offer us 80% of that' for a very small amount of money. The major company then had an obligation to explore it and that led to a dispute and all sort of complicated questions get raised."

On geographical areas, Edel said it was necessary to clearly define boundaries - for example, if a deal covers a region like West Africa or WA's Goldfields, what does that exactly cover?

"It's an obvious point, but gee it's surprising the number of disputes we still see around that, just through lack of precision in the parties thinking through what they want to do," he said.

Edel said another surprisingly common problem for juniors was potential conflicts of interest around directors of companies holding separate ground.

He said he'd seen a real case of a company managing director entering into a personal deal with a major, then when his company made a substantial discovery, the large company expected a slice of it.

"If you're going to do it personally, be really clear about the capacity in which you're entering it. You also need to be clear with the companies you're a director of," Edel said.

"You've got fiduciary obligations to act in the best interests of the shareholders of those companies, so you're putting yourself, nine times out of 10, in an impossible situation. Fiduciary obligations in Australia are very broad, very far-reaching … so you want to be very careful."