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Rubber hits the road in Rio's Queensland coal sale

SOURCE: Financial Review
2017-12-07 10:42:38

Investors have been talking about Rio Tinto's exit from Australian coal even longer than they've been talking about the arrival of Amazon. So it's fitting that meaningful progress has been achieved on both fronts this week.

While Amazon's arrival attracted a storm of publicity on Tuesday, the deadline for indicative bids for Rio's Queensland coal assets passed on Wednesday with much less fanfare.

To recap, Rio is selling its 80 per cent stake in the attractive Kestrel underground mine, its 82 per cent stake in the Hail Creek open cut mine, plus some undeveloped coal assets like Valeria and Winchester South.

The assets contain a mix of coking and thermal coal, and there has scarcely been a better time to sell with coking coal prices above $US200 per tonne and thermal coal prices above $US96 per tonne.

Street Talk understand the list of bidders includes US private equity firms Apollo Global Management, AMCI potentially with Guernsey private equity mob Riverstone and XCoal plus Melbourne-based private equity firm EMR Capital.

‚ÄčExisting coal miners like Whitehaven, Anglo American, the Siberian Coal Energy Company and New Hope are also understood to be involved with bids for specific assets. 

New Hope has been clear that it does not want underground assets, which rules out Kestrel, nor is it likely to buy development stage projects in Queensland given the difficulties it has had securing approvals for its New Acland mine expansion.

The challenge for Rio is that few synergies exist between its Queensland coal assets, with several hundred kilometres separating Hail Creek and Kestrel.

The disparate nature of Rio's Queensland coal assets means it is hard for Rio to argue the whole division is worth more than the sum of its parts. 

For that reason many observers believe the division will be broken up across several acquirers, rather than sold to a single buyer.

Like every recent coal acquisition in Queensland, a key factor will be the handover of take-or-pay obligations for port and rail capacity, which must be paid even if the capacity is not used.

Rio recognised $630 million of such "onerous contracts" in the Queensland Coal division's 2016 accounts, and that was enough to turn a profit of more than $400 million into a $209 million loss.

The division had a further $972.9 million of non-current, onerous contract provisions in its 2016 accounts, and that issue will need to be resolved before a sale can be executed.