Private investors had the opportunity to hear the story of four compelling rare earths companies just before the PDAC 2013 mining conference kicked off in Toronto on Sunday, at the Proactiveinvestors annual Rare Earth Power Breakfast.
Four firms presented at the forum, including Frontier Rare Earths (TSE:FRO), Montero Mining & Exploration(CVE:MON), Greenland Minerals and Energy (ASX:GGG) and Great Western Minerals Group (GWMG) (CVE:GWG).
The companies, while outlining their individual projects, all noted the depressed state of the rare earth space, but each was optimistic that it could weather the storm.
Perhaps most important was that all the companies noted the significance of having cash on hand, or the ability to secure cash, as well as partnerships to help develop their projects in a volatile and uncertain market, with Montero's president and CEO Tony Harwood noting that "the rare earths space is not for the faint of heart anymore".
The first off to present was Great Wetern Minerals Group (GWMG), a rare earth processor whose specialty alloys are used in the magnet, battery, defence and aerospace industries. GWMG has undergone a series of management additions and changes recently, in preparation for a new stage in the life of the company, as it aims to become a fully integrated rare earth producer.
In January, the company released an updated NI 43-101 compliant resource estimate at its Steenkampskraal rare earth project in South Africa that showed a mineral resource of 32,000 metric tonnes of total rare earth oxides plus yttrium oxide (TREO) under the indicated category, and another 42,100 metric tonnes under the inferred category. Both categories used a 1% TREO cut-off grade.
Its development program at its Steenkampskraal rare earth mine in South Africa is central to ensure a strong flow of feedstock for its downstream processing - the company intends to be one of the first to produce significant quantities of the more valuable heavy rare earth oxides, which are important materials for alloys.
“We continue to see the shortage of supply forecast in 2016 for critical rare earths and we believe that the demand for neodymium also remains high,” said CEO Marc LeVier at the Rare Earth Power Breakfast.
“China is the key in this whole equation, with 48 per cent of the known reserves and 97 per cent of the production. The export quotas are still a continuing item of concern, and an issue of opportunity for all the rare earth projects.”
Touting the experienced and diverse board at GWMG, LeVier said that the company has a multi-year plan of capacity expansion as driven by the demand and support of its existing and potential customer base.
“One of the great strengths of the company is its board of directors,” he said.
“Recent changes and additions made to the board were meant to diversify and help make the transition from an exploration and development company to a company that is doing engineering and development of the mine and preparing for production.”
Late last month, its rare earths processing unit Less Common Metals (LCM) sold and shipped, on a commercial basis, specialty alloys produced by its new strip casting furnace to three existing customers. An additional order, scheduled for delivery in the first quarter of this year, was placed by one of the three customers for an increased quantity of alloy.
“We believe this facility is world class and, pardon the pun, will be “a magnet” for all our new customers that we intend to provide sustained supply to.
“We look forward in 2013 to production with the new strip cast furnace and the arrival and installment of the second furnace in the first quarter, which we hope to have up and running in the second quarter,” LeVier noted.
The company is also looking to report results of additional drill holes in 2013, as well as updating “in the near future” on its previously announced evaluation of a spinoff of its non-South African exploration properties.
Next up was Greenland Minerals and Energy, a mineral exploration and development company focused on exploration in Greenland. Its flagship project is Kvanefjeld, a multi-element deposit located near the southwest tip of Greenland that includes one of the world’s largest resources of rare earth elements as defined by NI 43-101 reporting codes, along with extensive resources of uranium and zinc.
Dr. John Mair, the company’s executive director of business development, was on hand to talk to investors about the project at Proactive’s rare earth breakfast and noted that Greenland Minerals is now moving into the detailed pre feasibility phase with its flagship Kvanefjeld project.
“Comprehensive studies have been completed and they prevent a compelling picture for a large scale, cost competitive producer with clear potential to expand into what is a growing market,” Mair said.
Mair added that Kvanefjeld boasts low unit costs across all production streams.
“We are looking at significant production of heavy earths and uranium, which simply de-risks the project among highly fluctuating prices and market volatility in light rare earths.”
He added that Greenland Minerals believes uranium is important in attracting partnerships and one of the key things that differentiates its project from most.
Since it released its PFS in 2012, the company has been investigating the potential of establishing the refinery outside of Greenland.
Offshore locations with well‐established industrial infrastructure, readily available reagents and power, a skilled labour force and a regulatory framework to effectively manage radioactive materials are all key points of focus in establishing a refining location, the company said.
It added that the establishment of a refinery overseas will mean a smaller project footprint in Greenland, which is anticipated to reduce social and environmental impact and approvals risk, as well as reduce project risk and capital costs and increase financial returns.
Mair said the company is currently looking for potential European investment in the project and industry participants on the refinery side.
Greenland Minerals is also currently finalizing a study for the establishment of a three-million-tonne-per-year mine and mineral concentrator in Greenland and expects to complete the studies for an off‐shore refinery during 2013. Outcomes of the mine and mineral concentrator study are expected this month.
“The key things this year are the start up scale and implementation strategy and securing a mining license late this year,” said Mair.
He added that what makes Kvanefjeld a good project is its large resource, accessibility, large outcropping ore bodies which equate to low mining costs, a highly favourable ore type that is now significantly de-risked and the company’s ability to process it simply.
Greenland says it has now established a "very sound technical basis" for the completion of Kvanefjeld’s feasibility study process design, as well as produced concentrate to provide to potential offtake partners. The study is currently underway and is scheduled for completion this year.
Montero Mining & Exploration (CVE:MON) saw its president, CEO and director Dr. Tony Harwood present at the rare earth power breakfast, noting that the company is targeting a low operating cost and capital cost operation to produce individual rare earths eventually, but it also has a view to start a small production mine in the near term – subject to finalization of a mining license.
The junior explorer's plan is to fast track a portion of its Wigu Hill rare earth element deposit in Tanzania to the mining and production stage, but Montero has said that with a more comprehensive drilling program, it can expand mineral resources from the current 3.3 million tonnes to well above 40 million tonnes.
Preliminary metallurgical research and testwork on a 100-kilogram sample from Wigu Hill yielded results as high as 27.25% total rare earth oxides, with up to 16.68% from drilling.
“The main aspect to our project is the ease of extraction and potentially very low cost,” said Harwood, adding the Wigu Hill also features a good location, infrastructure, export access, high grade and size potential, easy mining and mineralogy.
“We have engaged with quite a number of offtake partners that are interested in the long term aspects of what we are trying to do. We are seeing demand face to face.”
Harwood said that junior or mid-tier producers in the rare earth space must show a demonstrateable process route to be able to get to the final product.
“The rare earths space is not for the faint of heart anymore,” he noted.
“A company really has to have a saleable product and someone to fund them and we worked this out just over a year ago, not just because of the markets, but because rare earths is very specialist.”
Harwood said Montero “went out and sought groups” that were interested not just in funding a resource or feasibility study, but also in being a part of the rare earths business.
“We [the rare earth industry] are in a very rough time at the moment in terms of equity markets, but we all know that the population of the planet is growing, and we all know that coming out of this rough time that rare earths are important for the future of development of green economies and energy saving methods of this world.”
Harwood said Montero has signed a number of MOUs in the past year and is at “quite an advanced stage” with a potential partner currently.
The company is targeting mining at the end of this year, and is “on its way” to apply for a mining license.
“We also entered into an agreement with the South African Metallurgical Institute (Mintek) who are building an extraction pilot plant and our material will be the first to go through that pilot plant,” Harwood stated.
Looking ahead to 2013, Montero’s milestones are to finalize its offtake and partner agreements.
“These days, you’ve got to find someone else to pay the bills,” Harwood said.
The company is also finalizing the sale or JV of its phosphate assets in South Africa.
Frontier Rare Earths was the final company to present at Sunday’s rare earth power breakfast, with board chairman Philip Kenny speaking to investors.
The company’s flagship asset is the Zandkopsdrift rare earth project in South Africa, which is one of the largest undeveloped rare earth deposits worldwide containing approximately 950,000 tonnes TREO. The Zandkopsdrift B Zone has the highest TREO grade and the highest grade of high value HREOs of significant advanced deposits outside of China.
Kenny noted that the project is a very big, high grade deposit, with “very good distribution” of critical rare earths – neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium - which he highlighted as being of most importance in the rare earth space.
“By tonnage, 22 per cent of our tonnage will be critical rare earths or 70 per cent by value,” he said.
“This is what insulates us from the current downturn and any future downturn.”
Kenny said that Frontier’s single biggest accomplishment in 2012 was the signing of its strategic partner, Korea Resources Corp (Kores) - the state-owned mining and natural resource investor which officially acquired the initial 10 per cent stake in Zandkopsdrift.
Along with the 10 per cent interest, Kores has also acquired an off-take right and obligation for 10 per cent of Zandkopsdrift rare earth production, for a total cash payment of C$23.8 million.
Kores also has the option to increase its interest in the project to up to 50 per cent, becoming an equal partner with Frontier, with an off-take right and obligation for up to 50 per cent production from Zandkopsdrift.
“We are the only junior in the rare earth business to get a strategic partner for offtake,” Kenny noted.
“We also have more cash in the bank that anybody in the sector, which is critical. If you don’t have the cash, you are not going to survive.”
“We have $51 million in the bank and it will probably take us $20 to $25 million to get to completion of definitive feasibility study (DFS), so we’ll be done with $25 million in the bank which gives us a very good feeling.”
As mining goes, Kenny said that Zandkopsdrift “is as easy as it gets” because the deposit outcrops on the surface and the company plans to drill to a total depth of 100 metres in the open pit.
“We have about 1 million tonnes of rare earth defined, which is plenty for a 30 to 40-year mine life with a PFS,” he added, noting that the project also has good mineralogy and metallurgy which is what will make rare earth companies succeed or fail in the future.
“When the market does return I think we’re in a good position. We have a great deposit, and our objective is to be the next major, low-cost producer of separate rare earth oxides outside China.”
Kenny added that the company’s shares have picked up recently as investors eagerly await the preliminary feasibility study for Zandkopsdrift - expected out in the first quarter of this year.
**An earlier version of this story was published with an error, incorrectly identifying the presenter for Great Western Minerals Group. It has since been corrected to identify President, CEO and Director Marc LeVier as the presenter for the company. Proactiveinvestors regrets the error.