Tom Albanese has stepped down from his position as CEO of Rio Tinto, after the mining giant announced a $14 billion dollar writedown. While most of those losses were connected with Alcan, the aluminum business, the company also lost $3 billion on a coal project in Mozambique. That’s by far the more interesting aspect of the story, and it’s one that deserves attention not just from investors, industry analysts and Africa watchers, but also from those (like me) with an eye on the company’s operations around Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Here’s how it all went down in Mozambique. A couple of years ago, Rio Tinto acquired Australian-based Riversdale Mining for $4 billion. Riversdale had a number of coal projects going in Mozambique near Tete, “the coal capital of the world.” Logistics – moving coal in significant quantities from the mines in the Moatize Basin – was a challenge. Some coal mined at Benga could move by rail, pending “final approval by government authorities.” Still, that was only a partial solution; “long term logistics,” as a Rio Tinto presentation [pdf] put it, would be required once the Zambeze and Tete East projects were in full swing.
The company proposed moving Zambeze coal by barge on the Zambezi River. Barges would travel from Tete to the port of Chinde, on the Indian Ocean. The promised solution would not only make the coal business boom in Mozambique; it would also allow for “future growth” and “provide a catalyst for further socio-economic development in [the] region.” The company sought approval for its Zambeze River project by autumn of 2011 and planned to start coal barging by 2014.
All very well, except the Mozambique authorities never approved the transport of coal on the Zambezi.
How could the Mozambique authorities refuse Rio Tinto? After all, the company’s own Environmental Impact Report showed that coal-barging on the Zambezi would have no “significant” environmental effects.
Mozambique Transport Minister Paulo Zucula saw things differently: “the impact was seen to be very negative, and there were no plans for mitigation. As proposed it is not doable,” he said. Barging would adversely affect the river’s fish and dredging would increase the likelihood of floods: “every four years we have problems with flooding and killing people. So if you’re going to dredge the river, expand the banks, we will be in trouble.”
Zucula suggested Rio Tinto move its coal by rail. He has championed the construction of a new railway line from Moatize to the port of Nacala, and helped secure a $500 million investment in the $1.5 billion project from the Dutch government and the European Union. So Zucula may not have been solely concerned with the fate of the Zambezi’s fish or the people living along its banks. But the purity of Zucula’s motives is really not at issue. The issue is that Rio Tinto seriously miscalculated and overplayed its hand in Mozambique.
A blogger in the Financial Times today sees here “a useful lesson for other mega-project investors in emerging markets.” He doesn’t say what that useful lesson is. I’m certain it’s something more than the need for prudence, and that it extends beyond emerging markets. It has to do with overconfidence – hubris, even: “Rio knew what the challenge was. It just couldn’t find an effective answer.” And yet, it forged ahead, certain that it would prevail upon the authorities in Mozambique to see things its way. That was just plain arrogant.
Sam Walsh, the new CEO of Rio Tinto, should take this $3 billion lesson in humility to heart. At the very least, he and the board of directors might ask whether the company’s failures in Mozambique are the outcome of behaviors that are in evidence elsewhere.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the company is developing the Eagle Mine, it faces a set of challenges of the same kind if not of the same magnitude as those it faced in Mozambique. The mine is being built on a site sacred to Native Americans and will be situated in the heart of the Yellow Dog Watershed, which feeds into Lake Superior. The company has run roughshod over Native American claims and issued familiar and predictable assurances that it will be a responsible steward of the environment – whatever that means when you’re extracting sulfide ore in the middle of a fragile watershed ecosystem. As for logistics, Rio Tinto was banking on the approval and construction of County Road 595, despite local opposition and concern from environmental regulators, just as it banked on the approval of the barge plan in Mozambique.
What could possibly go wrong? Rio Tinto had big Michigan politicians on its side: Debbie Stabinow, Dan Benishek, Rick Snyder, Matt Huuki. Even the Romney campaign was for County Road 595. But the EPA along with local environmental groups objected. After much wrangling, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality denied the wetlands fill permit for the new road just a couple of weeks ago, on January 3rd: the road did not meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Rio Tinto has now had to shift financial support from this $82 million project to improving and upgrading existing roads. It’s as if the company’s blunder in Mozambique found a faint but telling echo in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.