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Indonesia says still in China talks for Freeport copper smelters

Tsingshan negotiations near new deadline after recently starting with Enfi

The open-pit mine of  Freeport's Grasberg copper and gold mine complex in Indonesia.   © Antara Foto/Reuters

JAKARTA -- The top executive at Indonesia's state-owned mining holding company says talks are still on with China's Tsingshan Steel over a $2.8 billion plan to build a second copper smelter for Freeport Indonesia.

Orias Petrus Moedak, president director of Mind ID, which owns a controlling stake in the local operations of U.S. miner Freeport-McMoRan, said a final decision will be made within the next two weeks on whether Freeport Indonesia will accept Tsingshan's offer or build the smelter on its own.

"Tsingshan came with a cheaper proposal and offered quick work," Moedak told reporters at an online event Friday. "It is interesting in terms of cash flow, so we're considering them," Moedak said, denying recent reports that the negotiations had reached an impasse after the two sides failed to meet a previous deadline at the end of March.

"But we have to look at the timing, the quality, the final price," he said. "We don't want it to be cheap at the beginning, but then become pricey later. So we're currently negotiating those terms."

The push for a resolution comes as Reuters reported that copper prices hit a new high, propelled by expectations for economic recovery and forecasts of surging demand from electric vehicle makers and renewable energy producers that will require more of the electricity conducting metal.

Moedak said the decision must be made by the end of May to meet the government's deadline for completing the smelter project by December 2023.

He added that if negotiations with Tsingshan break down Freeport will return to its initial plan to build the second smelter within the Java Integrated Industrial and Port Estate in East Java Province. That is near an existing smelter operated by Smelting, which is minority-owned by Freeport Indonesia. Japan's Mitsubishi Materials holds the controlling stake.

That had been the plan before the coronavirus pandemic halted progress on construction and Tsingshan made its initial offer. Moedak said engineering design and other preparations are still underway for the new East Java smelter. Tsingshan, meanwhile, proposed building the smelter closer to Freeport's copper and gold mining operations in Grasberg, in Indonesia's easternmost Papua Province.

Attempts Monday to reach Tsingshan's Indonesia operations for comment were unsuccessful. Relevant officials at Tsingshan Group in China could not be reached by phone and a message left on its website was not immediately answered.

The new smelter will be able to process 1.7 million tons of copper concentrate per year, in addition to a $250 million plan to expand Smelting's capacity by 300,000 tons to 1.3 million tons.

Under President Joko Widodo's push to move Indonesia beyond the mining and export of raw materials as it develops Southeast Asia's largest economy, Freeport's export licenses, renewed annually, are subject to review and approval by the government every six months, depending on the progress of the smelter construction.

Separately, Indonesia's Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) announced last month the signing of a memorandum of understanding with China Enfi Engineering Corp. for a potential third copper smelter in Fakfak regency, West Papua Province. BKPM Chairman Bahlil Lahadalia said in a statement that the government will support the plan and guarantee at least 800,000 tons of copper concentrate from Freeport annually.

Moedak on Friday said that the Enfi deal means Freeport will have to apply for new permits to increase Grasberg's production output beyond the planned 3 million tons per year through 2041 previously approved by the government.

Besides copper, Mind ID is also at the center of Indonesia's plans for nickel, another essential input for electric cars. Indonesia has the world's largest reserves of the nonferrous metal. State-owned Mind ID controls a majority stake in nickel producer Aneka Tambang (Antam) and last year acquired a 20% interest in the local operations of Brazilian mining giant Vale, Indonesia's largest nickel producer. Both Antam and Vale Indonesia are publicly listed.

Mind ID and Antam are part of the Indonesia Battery Corp., a newly established state enterprise consortium through which the country is seeking to enter the global EV supply chain. Moedak said IBC is currently preparing separate studies with China's Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) and South Korea's LG Chem, the world's two largest makers of lithium-ion batteries, to manufacture the power packs in Indonesia.

Moedak also said Indonesia is actively looking for reserves of lithium, another essential rechargeable battery component, both domestically and overseas.

Mind ID and its subsidiaries are also involved in other domestic downstream projects. Moedak said the group is planning up to 29 trillion rupiah ($2.05 billion) in capital spending this year, including construction of an $800 million alumina, or aluminum oxide, smelter. Most of the funding is expected to come from bank loans, with Mind ID considering issuing new bonds to cover the rest.

Moedak also revealed a potential initial public offering of Mind ID's aluminum producer subsidiary, Indonesia Asahan Aluminum (Inalum) next year, and for the holding company itself in 2023. Inalum had been selected as the state mining holding company in 2017 as part of the government's state-owned enterprise consolidation program. But the government decided to launch Mind ID two years later to take over the holding company roles and let Inalum focus on production.

Mind ID posted a 17% drop in consolidated revenue last year to 66.6 trillion rupiah, but its net income skyrocketed to 1.8 trillion rupiah from 20 billion rupiah in 2019, buoyed by higher prices for gold, copper, nickel and tin. The rebound followed a particularly bad 2019 due to the U.S.-China trade war. Moedak also attributed the company's stronger finances to efficiency measures taken across the group in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional reporting by CK Tan in Shanghai

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