4 Min Read
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By Sonali Paul
SYDNEY, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Planned changes to Papua New Guinea's mining laws are creating uncertainty ahead of an upcoming election, despite strong interest in proposed multibillion dollar mining and energy projects in the Pacific nation, lenders and advisers say.
The quality of the copper, gold and gas resources in the country mean there is appetite to lend to projects including Total SA's Papua liquefied natural gas project, Guangdong Rising Assets Management's (GRAM) Frieda River and Newcrest Mining and Harmony Gold's Wafi Golpu copper and gold mines.
However Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and Credit Suisse bankers said uncertainty over elections in mid-2017 and proposed government mining and energy policies may affect the size and pricing of loans.
Planned changes include shortening mine leases to 25 years from 40 years, giving the state the right to acquire a project for half its sunk cost after the first phase, an increase in royalties to 3 percent and a doubling of the production levy to 0.5 percent.
PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill told a conference in Sydney he would not go ahead with any changes to the mining law ahead of national elections in June 2017, and would await a new mandate in parliament.
But the uncertainty is putting pressure on the nation's sovereign rating, which would affect lending terms.
"When we assess the risk and when we assign risk ratings to projects, to the extent that the sovereign rating is under pressure or downgraded, ultimately that translates to a higher cost of funds to the borrower," said ANZ's head of mining and resources infrastructure project and export finance Wai Mun Lum.
The PNG Chamber of Mines and Petroleum has warned that the proposed mining law changes could make the Frieda River and Wafi Golpu projects unviable.
The main attraction of Papua New Guinea is the sheer size of the deposits, which are tucked away in remote, mountainous regions with limited infrastructure.
"I talk to investment banks, and they're all keen to remain on top of what's happening in PNG. They see the opportunities, and they'll all be there," said Anthony Latimer, a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright on the conference sidelines.
But in a country where the only airport with runway lights is in the capital, Port Moresby, lack of infrastructure poses a big challenge. For a company like ExxonMobil building the $19 billion PNG LNG project, a mammoth four-year task which it likened to constructing on the moon, that was doable.
ANZ's Lum said for smaller companies like GRAM's PanAust looking to build the Frieda River mine, it would be a bigger challenge to fund port and power facilities and an air strip.
However where western bankers fear to tread, China's big banks are pouring in, bankers and advisers said.
"The recent joint venture between Zijin and Barrick for Porgera (gold mine) is going to be very good for PNG," said Graham Smith, associate director of mining M&A at KPMG.
"We're seeing the Chinese banks have a very different risk appetite than some of the western banks for jurisdictions such as PNG, as well as lower debt costs generally."
Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Richard Pullin