Some notes on the Nickel Buyers, Producers & Processors conference. Vol 140
The Petromindo.com “Nickel Buyers, Producers & Processors Conference was held in Jakarta on the 13-14 July 2022. The conference had some 200 direct attendees, and more on line. The conference was held in English, with many of the presentations being available on line through https://bit.ly/nickelconference2022 This article is not a summary review of facts and figures, nor includes all presentations and should not be relied upon for commercial decisions. The conference has stimulated a personal view, and some speculation, on a number of aspects about the nickel industry. I apologize for any errors or omissions that may appear in this article.
The overall trend of topics emphasized the nickel buyers short- and long-term outlook, with many presentations emphasizing the futuristic nickel battery industry, with supporting emphases on the strong nickel pig iron [NPI], stainless steel industry. Previous nickel conferences included the practical issues around nickel geology, geochemistry and mineral processing aspects that now seem to have been resolved, reflecting the evolution of a strong local technical competence across the nickel industry. Resolving local community and small miner issues are ongoing, though now more readily solvable.
Snapshot of the Nickel Industry.
Mrs Meidy Katrin of the Indonesian Nickel Miners Association (APNI), along with a number of other presenters provided a quick outline of the Indonesian nickel industry. There were some 338 nickel IUP tenements (before the recent revocation of about 110). There are 27 existing and 81 planned (USD 4.2 billion) Ni smelters (71 pyrometallurgy, 10 hydrometallurgy) producing nickel pig iron (NPI), ferronickel, nickel matte and NiOH. Overall saprolite demand is estimated at 187 mill ton per year, and limonite demand at 79.3 million ton per year. The output of NPI typically contains 10-14% Ni, ferronickel contains 20-25%Ni, and nickel matte contains 78% Ni. There are 7 stainless steel companies producing 6.9 million ton per year. There are plans to 4 battery producers in Java and Sumatra, sourcing from 5 raw material companies in Central Sulawesi and North Maluku.
Indonesia is estimated to contain 23.7% of the world’s nickel resources and about 30% of global Ni production. Based on ESDM 2019 data, Indonesia holds Ni reserves of 4.594 billion ton (estimate Ni content of 71.99 mill ton Ni), and 11.784 billion ton of resources (170.02 mill ton Ni). Nickel ore production costs are typically $20-22/ ton (2017) with low cost of smelting below $4/lb (2019). Long term issues facing the Indonesian nickel industry include 1) conservation of resources, 2) waste disposal [22 million ton of slag produced in 2020], 3) carbon emissions, as well as some slow government processing of approvals. Tony Gultom of Harita Nickel mining on Obi Island mentioned they eased some regulatory processes through being declared a National Strategic project. The government strongly supports the nickel mining, smelting and downstream industries. Mrs Febriany Eddy of Vale Indonesia outlined their impressive and real program to reduce their carbon footprint, along with strong ESG credentials. Justin Werner of Nickel Mines Ltd provided an example of FDI sourced from Australia ($1.4 bill), to encourage investors from a wider range of countries.
Mr Hasyim of the BKPM noted that total nickel investment (2017-2022 Q1) is $16.3 billion, of which $15.4 billion is Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and $0.9 billion domestic investment. Mr Dendi Ramdani of Bank Mandiri pointed out that loans to the nickel industry typically favoured well know customers to maintain target levels of industry sector risk factors. Edric Koh of the London Metal Exchange (LME) outlined their role in trading (hedging and investing) along with pricing and warehousing. New regulations have been introduced to counter the recent highly disruptive price volatility created by one large trader.
Toto Nugroho of the Indonesian Battery Corporation outlined their strategy to develop an “end to end” mining- smelting – manufacturing of nickel batteries. LG Energy Solutions is planning to invest $8 billion while CBL is to invest $ 6 billion in such plants. Romy Ramadhani of PT. Hydrotech Metal Indonesia (HMI) is one of several initiatives to develop a viable small scale nickel extraction process suited to individual IUP mines. Should these trials be converted into commercial production, then this could be a significant game changer for the entire nickel industry. Mr Arif Tiammar of the Association of Indonesian Metallurgical Professionals (APMI) outlined various geochemistry paths, and their comparative costs, to develop different batteries. The recycling of used car batteries (6 years) suggested they could be used for other purposes (4 years) before being scrapped / recycled.
Mr Mark Mistry of the Nickel Institute (London) outlined a global picture of the future of the nickel industry. He floated the concept of following the branding of metal (as is for “The copper Mark”) to show compliance with due diligence, ESG compliance to be recognized by regulators and off-takers.
Mr Aldo Namora of PT. Ceria Nugraha Indotama (CNI) outlined their ongoing nickel exploration drill program (15,000m in 2021), and now looking for suitable partners or financiers to develop their project.
International opportunities for local workforce.
Paul White, secretary-general of the International Nickel Study Group [INSG] outlined the global resurgence in nickel production and refining. This global revitalization of the nickel industry suggests that the Indonesian skilled nickel professionals and technicians may now consider career advancement in the locally expanding industry, or with international projects. It is general knowledge that the Indonesian professional association are very active in conducting training for geologists and miners to develop the nations nickel industry. Prof. Dr Evvy Kartini’s presentation about the National Battery Research Institute [ www.n-bri.org ] is supporting the development of human resources to run the growing development of the battery industry in Indonesia. This Institute undertakes research, education & training, internships, the development of testing and standardization, plus specific consultation.
The truck suppliers of Volvo, Renault, Liugong Indonesia and Iveco (Chakra Jawara) outlined their smaller trucks and excavators that show technology advancements that reflect the nature of the Indonesian nickel mining as input on their global design. Indonesians are skilled operators in these trucks and are thus suitable to seek employment in most mines around the world.
Marketing of EV cars.
Mrs Arfidea Saraswati of Asket Law listed a number of laws and regulations that have been developed to support the downstream nickel industry, and noted that many more are needed (environment, certification, registration, carbon tax, local content etc) before investors can see the full picture of developing such industries. However, it was her queries about marketing of EV vehicles that appears to be one of the fundamental points of this conference. No one in this 200-person audience owns an EV or hybrid car, as typically they are too expensive and the realities of recharging in Indonesia is not well understood. Such high cost may make it unlikely that Indonesia, or many other countries, will transition to EV cars for some time. Some countries are regulating to force the adoption of EV cars, other rich countries are providing limited fiscal incentives. There is significant reluctance by the mass market. Marketing is presently directed at the environmental aware and rich, wherein mass markets are more concerned with affordability and practicality. Outside the conference I recalled some 20-30 years ago the global push to replace petrol with gas in cars, taxies and bajai, but this system failed due to limited refilling stations. This suggests that the EV car industry may also fail, or simply be a rich man’s choice – to get another Ferrari or get a novel EV car? Mr KK. Ventaka of OliverWyman’s outlook on EV demand projections show the growth in EV cars will only reach about 10% by 2035 with no further incentives and legislative support.
Arfidea’s drawing our attention to marketing opens up a number of areas where the EV industry and government planners may need to pay more attention to.
Mr Hengky Daulay of PT. Indeks Komoditas Indonesia (IKI) outlined their independent research into the numbers of smelters and associated investment. Mr Hengky tabulated some smelters capital cost, throughput and great profits, with the potential for very short pay-back periods. For example; “the non-tax incomes (PNBP) of nickel ore until fifth month 2022 is IDR 4.18 trillion, increased 111.1%yoy”. It would appear there may be some large discrepancies on investment stated and publicly recorded. Discussion suggested that given the huge sums of money involved in this fast-growing industry, perhaps it is time to consider reintroducing the EITI to provide public with ongoing confidence on the sound supervision of this industry, and for the industry to counter potential anti-dumping claims.
Nickel supply and price.
Mrs Shirley Wang of Shanghai Metals Market (SMM) provided a video with great graphs on Indonesia’s production characteristics, and China’s demand for stainless steel and Ni matt. This reflected China’s domestic production (source from Philippines) and costs and noted the importance of nickel products from Indonesia. Shirley and other market researchers (Nikhil Shah of CRU group, Oliver Wyman] predict slow post covid recovery while growth in production from Indonesia may lead to a surplus, though prices to fall, but remain strong in the short to medium term.
Mr. Jayprakash Sahu of SteelMint outlined that in India, scrap metal is a small but important part of the supply of raw material. India’s stainless-steel production is slowly expanding while domestic consumption is falling. Excess stainless steel is exported, rather than build stockpiles.
Paul White of the International Nickel Study Group outlined the reawakening of the global nickel industry of South Africa (Madagascar, S. Africa, Zambia), Americas (Canada, Brazil, Cuba), Europe (Russia, Finland, Greece, France, Cyprus), Oceania (Australia).
Most of Indonesia’s nickel products are sold to China, wherein the socio- political influence of the EU on production technology and ESG factors (such as separate import tax to Europe), may have lessened influence on some Indonesian nickel producers.
Some local gossip suggests that less nickel product be exported, but redirected to the domestic market. Discussion suggested that the development of a downstream nickel manufacturing industry needs to first find domestic offtake markets, before pushing producers into supplying metal for domestic use
The development of the Indonesian nickel mining and smelting industry is a shining success, and comes at a time when the wealth generated is much needed to maintain the national economy and well-being of Indonesia. Some smelter modification is ongoing to convert NPI into higher value products. Nickel mining and smelting costs are increasing. Various market analysists predict an approaching oversupply of nickel and stainless steel, though prices are to remain good.
A number of industry promoters show optimistic growth in the nickel battery sector, without clarifying the underlying factors for such projections. History has shown the metal commodity market promoters may overlook various factors, such as the real difficulties in getting HPAL plants to operate properly, that many countries are not ready with supportive EV infrastructure, the distinction between government targets and realizable reality, or the many marketing factors to be overcome to promote EV sales.