By Marc Davis, BNWnews.ca
Several delegations of high-powered Chinese investment consortiums, government representatives from Beijing, and state-run mining companies have in recent weeks visited Western Potash Corp. (TSX: WPX) (FSE: AHE).
Crowding into elevators to the 18th floor of the downtown skyscraper that houses the Vancouver-based aspiring potash miner, they weren’t there to enjoy the panoramic view of this picturesque port city. Nor did they care to see for themselves how the metropolis below them has become an affluent and thriving gateway to south-east Asian marketplaces.
Their attention lay elsewhere. In fact, their overtures to do business with this small but asset-rich company concern Western Potash’s flagship Milestone potash project, which is far away in Canada’s hinterland province of Saskatchewan.
Now their quest has come into much sharper focus following Western Potash’s announcement of an updated resource estimate a few days ago. This key benchmark development suggests that a multi-billion dollar potash mine with a 50-year mine life is now a very viable proposition. Especially since the company’s emerging deposit is situated within the planet’s richest and most prolific potash fields.
Last week’s announcement of this independently-assessed and updated resource estimate significantly upgraded the Milestone potash resource calculation. It now stands at 174million tonnes in the highly reliable ‘measured and indicated category,’ as well as 560 million tonnes in the more approximate ‘inferred category.’
The news didn’t just offer further encouragement to Western Potash’s Chinese suitors; it was also well-received by potash experts in the investment industry. They include Joel Jackson, a fertilizer analyst for the big-league Canadian institutional investor, Bank of Montreal. The new resource estimate is large enough “for an adequate mine life pending positive results from engineering studies,” he told clients in a June 3rd research note. (In the potash business, mines typically have a decades-long lifespan).
Jackson also suggested that this new development makes Western Potash an undervalued stock, when compared to its only peer, Potash One Inc. (TSX: KCL), which trades in the $2 range. One of only two other publicly traded junior potash explorers in Canada, Potash One owns the similarly-sized Legacy potash deposit. It is also in the same region of southern Saskatchewan as Milestone, and likewise benefits from being in close proximity to the major city of Regina. (The Legacy deposit weighs-in at 189 million tonnes in the measured and indicated category).
According to Jackson: “At WPX’s current market capitalization, the stock is currently being valued at less that half that of KCL on a per-tonne basis. So it would not seem a stretch that WPX could be due for a step-up in valuation.”
Though Potash One’s project is further ahead along the developmental curve than Milestone, Western Potash expects to complete a scoping study (a very preliminary blueprint for a mine) by July, Jackson also noted.
Regardless of how soon the Legacy and Milestone projects can be commercialized, they both already represent key strategic assets to potash suppliers and end users, alike. This is illustrated by the fact that the planet is facing the daunting challenge of doubling its crop yields over the next few years. And potash-based fertilizer is crucial to boosting crop output, while also ensuring cost containment.
To put matters in perspective, there is a dire need to step up food production to sustain a burgeoning global population, which is growing by at least 75-80 million people a year. Then there’s also the fact that three billion people in emerging economies are now demanding feed-intensive animal protein in their diets.
Such scenarios are making both Western Potash and Potash One subject to heightened takeover speculation. Their appeal is also underscored by the fact that the Milestone and Legacy deposits are both amenable to ‘solution-extraction’ mining methods. This translates into much lower capital expenditures and operating costs than conventional potash mines.
Jacob Bout, a fertilizer analyst for the Toronto-based investment banking heavyweight CIBC World Markets, believes that potash juniors are ripe for the picking.
“Companies involved solely in exploration of potash are likely take-out candidates, either by diversified mining companies seeking a way into the potash industry or by countries looking to lock-in supply,” he stated in a research report entitled ‘Global Potash Supply – A Focus on Saskatchewan Exploration.’
These remarks were made at a time when there was only a trio of potash explorers active in Saskatchewan. One of them – Athabasca Potash Inc. – has since been bought out earlier this year by potash-hungry BHP Billiton Ltd. (NYSE: BHP), the world’s largest mining company. In a deal worth $341 million, Athabasca Potash shareholders were able to cash out at $8.35 a share.
A relative newcomer to the potash business, the diversified Australia-based mining giant, BHP Billiton, is on record saying that it wants to be a "major" player in the potash industry within the next decade. And that may prompt the deep-pocketed multinational to keep both Western Potash and Potash One well within its crosshairs.
It is also worth noting that Brazil-based global mining giant Vale SA (NYSE: VALE) is making a big splash in the potash mining business by aggressively acquiring assets all over the world. Vale already has a strategic foothold in Saskatchewan. This is where it is making headway with a solution-extraction potash mine-the-making near Regina.
This also makes Vale another potential buyer for the two remaining advanced-stage potash juniors in Saskatchewan. Notably, Vale’s potash project actually borders the Milestone property. This is particularly encouraging for Western Potash, which believes that its own deposit exhibits similar geological features. Ones that are likely suitable for the realization of an energy-efficient and therefore cost-efficient solution-extraction mine.
That said, the three long-standing potash power players in Saskatchewan could also be in the running to gobble up Western Potash and Potash One. These dominant North American producers are Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (TSX: POT) (NYSE: POT), Agrium Inc. (TSX: AGU) (NYSE: AGU) and The Mosaic Company (NYSE: MOS). They act as a cartel and collectively sell their potash via an international marketing arm called Canpotex Ltd.
China has to import most of its potash from Canada. And its government is becoming increasingly frustrated with being beholden to Canpotex – which dictates the sometimes exorbitant prices that China has had to pay for an increasingly indispensible nutrient for its burgeoning agriculture industry.
So, Chinese importers are keenly aware of the strategic benefits of locking-in their own Canadian potash supplies. That has prompted plenty of speculation that they may yet get the jump on everyone else by striking a deal with Western Potash.
Courtesy of BNWnews.ca
Disclosure: No Positions