Fran O'Sullivan: Slump, green energy burying coal mines

Job losses and closures likely in Solid Energy turnaround plan

Don Elder and his former board have been criticised for the SOE's failings. Photo / APN
Don Elder and his former board have been criticised for the SOE's failings. Photo / APN

Former Solid Energy boss Dr Don Elder was one of the star performers on John Key's first official visit to China in 2009.

Elder - a former Rhodes scholar, big-brain thinker and a single-minded man - was among a group of seven leading New Zealand businessmen who leveraged Key's cachet as Prime Minister to open doors with the Chinese Government and resolve issues with thorny customers.

Elder was upfront with me then that it was helpful merely having the Prime Minister in China at a time when he was resolving issues with two of his company's customers that happened to be Chinese SOEs. Elder's SOE customers were getting toey. The Chinese steel-makers were cutting production as orders shrank. They felt Solid Energy's contracted prices were too high.

They were tantalising times. New Zealand manufacturing companies that had been hit hard by the global financial crisis were already turning to China for new shareholders who would put up the capital to stop them going under.

But neither Elder nor the former board foresaw that the hard-nosed responses they were getting from their Chinese customers were early signals of a forthcoming global slump in coking coal prices that ultimately ripped the guts out of Solid Energy's profitability and resulted in undercapitalised mine companies going under elsewhere.

What is obvious from this vignette is that political interventions cannot hold back a remorseless market tide.

Solid Energy's collapsing fortunes do not exist in a vacuum.

In the United States, some major companies are moving towards bankruptcy; the same thing has been happening in Europe, and within China unprofitable mines have been closed. But Solid Energy has been caught short at the operational level.

The directors had plans for some very big projects. The most compelling was a proposal to convert Southland's massive lignite reserves into diesel fuels and urea. International investors were being lined up to underwrite the developments.

This week the same Cabinet ministers who signed off on Solid Energy's visionary plans during annual shareholder negotiations said, in so many words, that the company which had been expected to feature among five Government initial public offering s (IPOs) - was just one government cheque away from receivership.

Elder, his former chairman boss John Palmer, and the previous board have come in for plenty of pasting over Solid Energy's strategies and its gold-plated head office structure.

But it's worth noting that the ministerial shareholders did acquiesce in the blue sky thinking. Neither the board nor Elder simply pulled this out of the box.

We have to take Finance Minister Bill English at his word that the timing of the Government's revelations over Solid Energy's desperate plight was prompted by the fact that it was already in talks with its banks.

Not that the Government was desperate to turn the page on Key's own embarrassment over the results of the Auditor-General's report on the secret dealings over SkyCity's "pokies for convention centre" proposal.

Nevertheless the political Opposition will make hay out of this.

What does surprise is English's statement that the Government will not let Solid Energy fall into receivership.

There is political utility in indicating to the electorate that the Government will not let the company fail. Ministers still get plenty of stick from West Coasters over the Government's reaction to the Pike River coal mine disaster.

English has indicated more job losses and mine closures may lie ahead.

He wants to monster the bankers into playing their part. English hasn't stated publicly what that part should be but with the company's debt level snowballing, the options are few.

Solid Energy chairman Mark Ford is pulling together a turnaround plan. What will result will not be a full-blown energy company. Simply a lightly staffed state-owned coal extraction and exporting company.

Which begs the question of why the Government should hold onto it.

The problem is it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the outlook for New Zealand's coal exports will be as rosy as before the GFC. For one thing, the new Chinese Government's State Council has flagged a shift from coal-driven industry towards energy conservation. There is a big push towards developing nuclear energy, massive solar power and wind farms, and more hydro.

The fundamental "energy shift" underway in China is expected to hit the expansion of Australia's coal mining industry, other coal exporters, particularly from the US, are undercutting to stay in business, and China is itself looking to develop its own mines in Africa.

The more fundamental issue is the reaction of the Chinese people to the ghastly acrid pollution that swept over the country last month. China is sloping towards a green-growth future.

Which leads me back to the point: Why own a coal mine?

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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