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wp ST/John McBeth: Political, Shareholder Woes Trip Up Mining Giant in Indonesia

January 15, 2013

ST/John McBeth: Political, Shareholder Woes Trip Up Mining Giant in Indonesia

January 15, 2013

The Straits Times
by John McBeth

photo: An aerial view shows the site of the Grasberg mine, operated by
the US-based Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold in Indonesia’s Papua
province in this Nov. 4, 2010 file photo. (Reuters/Muhammad Yamin).

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold has been scrambling to reassure
investors that its controversial diversification into oil and gas does
not mean it is facing problems extending its four-decade-long control
over Papua province’s hugely profitable Grasberg copper and gold mine.

"Resource nationalism is always a concern when we operate in the
countries we do," chief executive and president Richard Adkerson said
in a conference call last month.

"But there is no development in Indonesia or Africa that is driving us
to do this."

The world’s fifth biggest mining company is battling political
headwinds ahead of Indonesia’s 2014 elections in efforts to negotiate
a 20-year extension to its contract of work, which expires in 2021.

Freeport claims it is entitled to two 10-year extensions under wording
in the existing 1991 contract. But the Indonesian government is
insisting that it conforms with the 2009 Mining Law by converting the
contract to a business license, which does not carry the same degree
of certainty.

Adding to that uncertainty, the constitutional court is hearing a
challenge to the mining law by the same nationalist lobby which
recently won a decision forcing Jakarta to restructure how it
regulates the oil and gas industry.

Freeport has to get things settled before it dives much deeper into a
US$16 billion program which will convert the Grasberg from a vast open
pit into the world’s biggest underground operation, with electric rail
and 900 km of tunnel.

The company is already in negotiations with the government, but given
the political atmosphere, it is unlikely to reach any deal until after
the 2014 elections — and then with an entirely different set of
ministers.

Adkerson has sought to sweeten the pot by offering to list subsidiary
Freeport Indonesia on the Indonesia Stock Exchange, correctly noting
that it might help to put the company in a more positive light.

The contract extension aside, the Grasberg mine has other problems.
Freeport was forced to halt operations for the last three months of
2011 in the face of an unprecedented strike involving 8,000 of its
workers.

With the labor agreement coming up for its biennial review in March,
Freeport is now bracing itself for another round of union demands that
could cause further disruptions in production.

A steady stream of foreign security experts have been advising on the
best way to guard the mine, especially the 100 km road linking
Grasberg to the lowland town of Timika which has been the target of
frequent sniper attacks.

Because of its past association with the Suharto regime and
environmental and human rights infractions, real, imagined and
invented, Freeport has become the foreign company most Indonesians
love to hate.

Now it is in trouble with its big shareholders as well. "This is one
of the worst tele-conferences I’ve ever heard," snapped Evy Hambro,
managing director of investment firm BlackRock, as executives sought
to justify the planned acquisition of two oil exploration firms.

The uproar stems from an apparent conflict of interest in a $20
billion deal to buy McMoRan Exploration and Plains Exploration and
Development, which will cost the Arizona-based mining giant about
two-thirds of its market cap.

Because of the way it is structured, the deal did not need shareholder
approval, an issue that infuriated BlackRock and other investors given
management’s financial interest in McMoRan Exploration and a 17
percent drop in the value of Freeport’s stock.

McMoRan’s shares plunged 35 percent last November because of
problematic flow tests at its deepwater Davy Jones site in the Gulf of
Mexico, which it claims has the potential of being the biggest oil
discovery in a decade.

Adkerson, who is also co-chairman of McMoRan, talked about the
"complexities" resulting from overlapping management, with six
directors holding dual board membership in the two companies.

In essence, Freeport is going back to its roots. Co-founded by
geologist James "Jim Bob" Moffett in 1969, McMoRan Oil merged with
Freeport Minerals in 1981 and later sold off its oil and gas assets to
help fund the development of the Grasberg mine.

New Orleans-based McMoRan was spun off in 1994, but the company
continued to be run by the hard-charging Moffett, the concurrent
chairman at Freeport and the guiding force behind the latest move.

Recounting the company’s history of risk-taking in remote Papua, which
stretches back to the late 1960s, Moffett basically asked shareholders
to trust him. "We know how to swing for the fences," he rasped.

"We’re home-run hitters."

Described by Adkerson as the firm’s "cornerstone asset", and by
Moffett as "the best mine in the world", the high-altitude Grasberg
mine contributes to 31 percent of Freeport’s revenues — even if the
strike did make 2012 an exceptionally bad year.

But that dependency is expected to drop to 23 percent as a result of a
deal that Adkerson calls an "add-on and not a diversion", with 74
percent of future revenues expected to come from mining and 26 percent
from what he says will be self-funding oil and gas operations.

The acquisitions create a resource conglomerate worth $60 billion,
inclusive of debt, and mark a major shift in strategy for a company
which used its Grasberg riches to gobble up Phelps Dodge, a firm much
bigger than itself, in 2007.

With 10 operating mines in North and South America and Africa, the
world’s biggest copper producer and fifth biggest miner has been
looking for opportunities outside its core business, worried about the
lack of new world-class copper deposits.

Their eye firmly on the short term, many shareholders are clearly not
convinced that getting back into oil and gas is the way to go.
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