A flood of investment in mining to cash in on rallying metals prices and rising global demand is far from guaranteed, miners told Reuters, as governments threaten to seize a bigger share of the returns.
Executives said at the Reuters Global Mining and Steel Summit this week the global trend of resource nationalism adds another layer of uncertainty to the sector, which is already battling surging costs.
They said countries risk alienating investors, who are also likely to move capital to locations with more predictability, Reuters reports.
“Capital is a competitive game and it is mobile,” said Mark Cutifani, chief executive of AngloGold Ashanti, Africa’s top gold miner and the third-largest in the world.
Cutifani described Australia’s planned new mining tax as a “terrible error” that will have long-term repercussions for investment, even after the government reached a complex deal with the big mining companies to water it down.
“It will hurt Australia. A lot of development (is) occurring in Canada, because it’s a much more competitive jurisdiction than Australia. Other parts of Africa are being looked at again as a consequence of the Australian move,” he said.
AngloGold’s Cutifani and other executives warned South Africa not to follow in Australia’s footsteps after a minister hinted last week the country might overhaul its minerals tax regime and take Australia as a template.
The comments further unnerved investors, already wary after a series of scandals and disputes over rights in South Africa have raised questions about governance.
Mining has already contracted as a share of the economy in the top platinum producer and a major source of gold.
Other countries including India have imposed taxes on iron ore exports to preserve resources for their own mills as companies seek to cash in on China’s hunger for raw materials.
Chile and Brazil also hope to raise tax revenue from miners.
A Fraser Institute survey published earlier this month showed how a growing trend of resource nationalism and new taxes has weighed on the attractiveness of once investor-friendly mining destinations.
Areas such as Canada’s Quebec, Nevada in the United States, Chile and Australia dropped in rankings as a result. South Africa dropped to 67th out of 79 countries.
Rio Tinto Chief Executive Tom Albanese warned that the “curse of resource nationalism” has become a major obstacle to mining projects worldwide.
He said miners needed to do more to tackle moves by governments to hike royalties and taxes, claim bigger stakes in projects or block deals.
When returns are measured in decades, as they are in mining, firms are sensitive about the prospects for policy change.
“You’re looking for countries that are disciplined in the way they make these changes … that the industry is consulted, that the changes are modest and reflecting the fact that you are committing a lot of capital,” said Greg Hawkins, chief executive of African Barrick Gold.
“Once you’ve started a mine, you can’t move it … so you are a little bit hostage to changes in the rules,” he said.
Other governments have been careful not to rattle things.
The president of Zambia, Africa’s top copper producer, ruled out windfall taxes for mining companies.
Miners say policies meant to give communities and governments a bigger share of the pie were not necessarily bad and helped make projects more sustainable, but they warned against statements and changes made without understanding the many dynamics affecting the industry.