“Mongolians can do TAVANTOLGOI extraction work themselves”

14th of 11, 2017

N.Ariuntuya finds out from the Executive Director of Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, D.Ariunbold, about the present state of affairs in the company, and the likely challenges ahead. Some bold decisions are long overdue to fulfil the company’s potential but these can be taken only at the political level.

How are things going?
Our 2017 target is to mine 13 million tonnes of coal and to export 11.5 million tonnes. So far, we have exported 7.5 million tonnes, thus already exceeding last year’s total exports of 7.3 million tonnes. We have exported 2.7 million tonnes from West Tsankhi and 4.8 million tonnes from East Tsankhi. We hope we shall meet this year’s export volume target, the only uncertainty lying not in any operational failure, but rather in problems with infrastructure, and with hitches at the border and with customs.

However, there should be no doubts about our reaching our revenue targets or about paying to the budget the projected amount in taxes and fees. Third quarter figures are not yet published, but our total profit in the first three quarters is expected to be MNT343 billion. Our total sales so far have earned us MNT997 billion, and we have until now paid around MNT220 billion in taxes and fees. Our total contribution to the state budget would be around MNT250 billion by the end of the year.

Quotas have been set for exporting companies so that fewer trucks queue up at the Gashuunsukhait-Gantsmod border, and Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi will be allowed 45 percent of the total 500 trucks to cross to China. Will this not affect your export volume?
Some sort of regulation was necessary and is welcome but we would have preferred the percentage of trucks allotted to each company to be based on its share of exports volume. However, we hope the present decision will be temporary and things will become normal before long.

It is a difficult situation now. At any given time, there are 500 loaded trucks and 500 more waiting to be loaded at our mine head, with a 13-km-long queue of trucks on the road outside  the mine. This total of 2,000 trucks, inside the mine area and outside, does not allow trucks of Energy Resources and the local Tavantolgoi to enter their respective mines. Since all this stems from the bottleneck at the port, what is required is urgent and strong government pressure on the Chinese to increase their handling capacity at border crossings.

What are your mining and sales targets in 2018? How do you expect the coking coal market to behave?
We are at present working on next year’s plans and budget, and hope not to reduce either extraction or export volume. Earlier hopes of exporting even more than this year now look dim because of the bottleneck at the border. We should go beyond the importing parties and negotiate at the government level for easier and faster border crossing. Otherwise we might end up exporting even less than in 2016. The infrastructure issue also needs to be addressed urgently.
As for the market, we are broadly optimistic. The first quarter could be difficult but things should stabilize thereafter. All depends on the policy of the biggest coking coal importer, which is China, and the entire world is waiting to see what decisions are taken at Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress.

China is restricting transportation of coal by truck. How is this going to affect its coal import from Mongolia?
That restriction is logical as truck-based transportation means higher unit costs anywhere, and I would expect it to be more widely and strictly enforced inside China. The Chinese railway network has not reached every coal washing plant there, so some coal has to move 200-300 km by truck. I believe the Chinese government is trying to restrict this, but it may not be viable for them to build railway links to consumers not so far from the border. Besides, since all Mongolian coal goes to the border in trucks, it will not make sense to unload it at the border, and reload it on the railway if its final destination is just a short distance away.

It is good that you now fix coal prices by open bidding. What is the current price and who are your buyers?
Yes, coal from both Tsankhis is now sold to the highest bidder. According to an existing agreement, 80% of East Tsankhi coal is sold to CHALCO. The remaining 20% is sold by open tender. Unfortunately, CHALCO has not been supplied its full quota of coal because of the slowdown at the border.

As for who our buyers are, they are all Chinese companies with permission to import coal to China, but we cannot identify which among them are state-owned and which not. We sell at the mine mouth to whoever offers the highest price and meets our conditions. Today, the price was $68.1/t.

What have been the plus points in selling by open tender?
The former practice of selling to companies that met certain requirements, without any open bidding, was seen as not being transparent, and the new management made a thorough study of how to make a change. One option was to sell through the agricultural exchange, but the exchange was found to lack the proper resources and facilities. Another was an auction where buyers raise their hand and quote a price. The problem in this was that the buyers could reach an agreement among themselves, and thus keep the price low, making us helpless.

The method that seemed the best to us and which we now follow is to receive sealed offers and then select the best offer after assessing their advance payment capacity, financial soundness, ability to quickly move the coal, and transport it. This is an open way of doing business. It also allows us to get closer to the market, to directly negotiate with big companies and to export in bulk.

How well is it working?
Quite well, with so many companies participating in the first auction. If prices drop, the competition will be less, and any rise in price will see companies competing more with one another. Currently, the competition is not really aggressive, with just about 10 major buyers in the bidding.

How frequently do you make a fresh selection?
It depends on how prices move. If they increase, we look for a new buyer who will pay at the new rates, but if prices fall, we try to continue as long as possible with the old rates.

TTJVCO of China and a consortium of Mongolian companies have been working as contracted operators in East and West Tsankhi respectively. How do their operational costs compare?
TTJVCO charges $4.2/cubic metre (MNT10,500), excluding value added tax, while Mongolian Miners works for MNT6,800/cubic metre. TTJVCO signed a long-term agreement 4-5 years ago. Efforts to lower their rates have not been successful except in some minor ways, even after a working group appointed by the government talked to the company, mainly because these are protected by the terms of the initial contract. One good thing, however, is that TTJVCO mainly uses Mongolian companies for the work at East Tsankhi.

In August, the government decided to close down the Tsagaankhad customs inspection area. How does this impact your operations?
Earlier, we used to unload our coal in Tsagaankhad, 20 km inside the border, and sell it from there. The costs of this unloading and storing, followed by re-loading before continuing on the journey to the border, were working out to be too high. Only for unloading, we had to pay $2/t. Plus, there was a fee for using the area. So, we decided to load at the mine mouth and, without unloading in Tsagaankhad, to carry on directly to the border. Energy Resource has also recently started transporting directly to the border without unloading in Tsagaankhad. Whatever coal is currently in Tsagaankhad is from the local Tavantolgoi.

I think the government decision was reasonable as we were no longer using Tsagaankhad, and also because it is good for the environment and people’s quality of life as so much dust used to be generated by the unloading and reloading of coal. However, the decision has not been fully enforced because it hurts the interests of some people who have factories and provide services around there.
With the present congestion at the border, some feel it would ultimately save time if the customs clearance work is done at Tsagaankhad. For coal exporters, however, the additional costs will be a major concern. Also the reloaded trucks doing the short trip to the border would tend to disrupt the orderly chain of trucks doing the uninterrupted longer trip. Altogether, and going beyond the companies’ interests, I would think it is for the bigger national good to close down Tsagaankhad.

When did your company start stopping at Tsagaankhad?
Two or three years ago. The customs inspection is done when coal is loaded at the mine, and the truck marked as such can then go to the border without any stop on the way for a check.

Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi has paid off CHALCO’s big debt, but what about the $200 million it owes the Development Bank, and maybe other business loans not so well-known?
The last $100 million of the 5-year-old CHALCO debt was repaid on March 30. We still have to sell them a contracted amount of coal from the East Tsankhi, but we now have a say on the price and other terms. Free of the debt, our revenue stream has got a boost.

That we could repay the debt before time was mainly possible because of increased coal prices. The government also played an assertive role by deciding to start mining in West Tsankhi, and by allowing us to sell by open tender.
The only debt Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi now has is the one from Development Bank. We have started repaying and we can clear the $200-million debt before next March depending on how it would be decided to settle it, perhaps partly through allotment of shares and the rest in cash.

The popular perception is that state-owned companies are wasteful and have bloated administrative structures. What have you done in the last one year to reduce costs?
We have been tackling the problem from a number of sides. In any case, it is wrong to think that Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi has a big organizational structure which costs much. In fact, our structure is tight. There might be a few instances of job responsibility overlap, but our administrative costs are really very small, taking up just 2% of our total budget.

We are always trying to cut extraction costs. One way of doing this is to choose operating companies through open tender. This is what we have done in West Tsankhi. Another way is to introduce the conveyor system to shorten the haulage distance, and we are now working on this, and should be able to put it in place with money from next year’s budget. Once this is done, operational costs will go down 30%, which means a lot given the large volume of extraction. By and large, we Mongolians are fully able to extract the deposit ourselves. The more we can do things without outside help, the better it is. It is not right to import everything and to entrust all work to foreign companies. We decided to do the shipment work ourselves, and announced a tender for coal handling equipment and have made our selection.

All coal loading work will be done by ourselves from the start of next year, and this will bring down loading costs by 50%. We have reduced the cost of mining one cubic metre by 15% by upgrading equipment. The effect of all our work this year will be evident by next year.

There is more. Replacing diesel machines by those with an electrical motor leads to large saving. TTJVCO has brought in an electrical excavator and built a power line in East Tsankhi. The excavator cannot be put to use before some administrative formalities are completed and relevant details in the feasibility study amended, but these will not take too long.
There are thus a variety of ways that we are working on to reduce operational expense. The main need is that of power. Construction of a power plant for Tavan Tolgoi has been under discussion for five years, and requires a political decision.

Installing a conveyor system is likely to need a high capital outlay. Can you do this from your own resources?
It is possible. Anyway, construction of a five-kilometer conveyor won’t require a very large amount of money, and there are many financing options. We could certainly arrange for a part of the outlay from our own resources. This initiative is feasible unless policymakers insist that “big interests require big decisions”.

How many jobs has Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi created? How many drivers from how many companies are employed to transport the coal?
Our rolls list 640 employees, but 240 of them are hired and paid by TTJVCO. Our estimate is that 6,600 people make a living in some way related to our company’s work.
As for coal transportation, we first make a contract with a buyer who then makes a contract with the transportation company. However, the vehicles are registered under our company. Presently, there are 2,600 trucks so registered.

There has been criticism that Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi extracts only the highest quality coal, and this will quickly deplete the most profitable part of the deposit. How many coal seams are being extracted currently? Also, are there any moves to sell value added coal?
There is no question that we must export washed and processed coal. We know that our present practice of exporting expensive coking coal in its raw form can be seen as selectively mining the best quality of coal. The company started mining 6-7 years ago and in the initial years, extraction was consistently less than projected in the feasibility study. It is only in the last 4.5 years that we have been operating according to the study. Currently, we are mining 3 seams -- the 4th, the 3rd and the thermal seam – and are yet to reach the lower level, the 0 seam, which we would do next year. Thereafter, we shall encounter the urgent problem of washing the coal. 

We can get this done at Energy Resource’s highly productive washing plant, which is nearby. We have met with them a number of times to discuss the issue, but nothing has been decided, with several issues unresolved. Maybe government regulations on public-private cooperation would take the work forward.

Is the main problem about the washing charges or recovery?
There should be a minimum 80% concentrate recovery for it to be economically profitable. The more important immediate concern is that the processed coal must generate more economic value.

Raw coal is being sold at $60-$70/t, so the price for washed coal has to be substantially higher to make commercial sense, but that is not what is seen.

What happened to a proposal your company once made to build its own plant with an initial annual capacity to wash 1 million tonnes of coal, which could be gradually increased to 5 million tonnes?
We completed a feasibility study and also obtained a water usage permit. A foreign company showed interest in collaborating in building the plant. But it would not be right to build a small plant when there is already a big one which cannot work to full capacity; in other words, it would not be reasonable to set up competition between a state-owned and a private company. We also have to remember that water is very precious in the Gobi. The danger of desertification will be much more if every company washes its own coal and depletes the already small water resource. So a final decision to build our own washing plant requires much careful thought.

It is not just an issue of exporting value added products. Until and unless we have an overall master plan on the TavanTolgoi deposit, we cannot make any progress on the washing plant, the power station, and the railway.

That is true. The uncertainty is difficult for the company, too. Adequate infrastructure is the key to sell Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi’s washed, liquefied coal at the world market price and then to transport it to sea ports. We are overusing the roads and doing a lot of damage. Lack of infrastructure is also not allowing us to fulfil the potential of the deposit. A railway and a parallel roadway have to be built to increase our export volume. The railway must first be connected to the Chinese network, and then we can seek alternative routes to other sea ports. Power supply is essential to develop the mine and to upgrade equipment. Indeed, the power plant issue should be resolved before construction of the railway and the washing plant.

Only a comprehensive and multi-level approach will work, not piecemeal solutions, if coal from Tavan Tolgoi is to become a global brand. Big political decisions should be made bravely. There should be a national unity of purpose, so that our sole policy is to further the interests of Mongolia.

You seem to suggest that Chinese buyers prefer buying raw coal. What exactly is the situation with washed coal?
Our processed coal, carried by truck, can reach only factories close to the border, maybe as far as Bugat, since we don’t have a railway to link with the Chinese railway. Until such time that we have the means to send the washed coal to any global market by sea, our value-added coal will suffer in comparison with raw coal.
There is another consideration. A washing plant has to be capable of adequate recovery. Since washing requires mixing coking coal with thermal coal, an important benefit of a washing plant would be that it will enable us to use our thermal coal, which we now sell to Chinese customers for just $15/t.

Since Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi is almost free of debt and sees bright days ahead, can it also pay for construction of the railway from Tavan Tolgoi to Gashuunsukhait?  
It is an option we have considered. We can also have an agreement with foreign investors who will construct the railway, run it for a while and then we buy it from them with our coal sale earnings. There are actually lots of options, but the decision is to be made not by us but by the Ministry of Roads and Transport Development. What we can only say is that the railway is a must to ensure the long-term competitiveness of the company.

What progress has been made in regard to Erdenet Tavan Tolgoi as part of implementing the government decision to develop the entire Tavan Tolgoi deposit as a complex?

Work has started. The proven reserves must be re-evaluated. The current feasibility study was made 5-6 years ago. We started spending great sums of money on exploration work in 2017. We began a detailed exploration campaign on Tsankhi deposit. Exploration work has started in Bor Teeg. The tonnage of coal on West Tsankhi and East Tsankhi will be re-evaluated. We believe that Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi’s reserves will be found to be more than at present and this increase in the proven reserves will allow us to raise funds in foreign markets. It might also encourage investors to offer flexible alternatives.

Has there been any progress in the matter of selling shares on an international stock market?
Our financial position and potential, plus the huge reserves of coal, will certainly ensure a successful IPO. The London Stock Exchange has shown interest and has been offering us suggestion on how to prepare for an IPO.
A lot of preparatory work is needed for this. Global investors must be satisfied that our company’s governance practices are of international standards. For this, a quality management system and organisational structure has to be in place. Work on this will start next year. Secondly, the company’s assets must be clear, following this year’s exploration work and reassessment of reserves. Thirdly, we need to publicly reveal how many shareholders there are in Mongolia and put them in the records. All of this work has started simultaneously.

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