Tight state control threatens mining

30 May 2021 - 05:04 By CHRIS BARRON

Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater, the country's premier gold miner and world's biggest producer of platinum group metals, says government restrictions on self-generation will make it impossible for the mining industry to meet international carbon neutrality targets, with dire consequences for exports and the national fiscus."There will come a time not too far in the future where if platinum group metals or iron ore or gold are produced by carbon-intensive electricity, we're not going to be able to sell our products because the world has gone green and is going greener every day," he says."If you can't get your carbon exposures down, end users will not buy your product."Minerals and energy minister Gwede Mantashe has again rejected appeals by business to raise the threshold for embedded generation from 10MW to 50MW.Sibanye has a 50MW project it wants to get off the ground but hasn't been able to get regulatory approval, and a 250MW project waiting for approval in the Rustenburg area.Froneman says self-generation is no longer just about plugging the disastrous energy gap created by Eskom's deficiencies."There's an energy discussion about not having energy, and then there's a carbon discussion about getting to carbon neutrality and being environmentally friendly."If South Africa doesn't make these moves very quickly there will come a time when we can't sell our products because they are dirty, just like coal."World carbon neutrality targets have been set for 2040 but Sibanye is coming under "immense pressure" from its investors and stakeholders to meet these targets by 2030, which it has committed to do.Mantashe is making this "very difficult".Businesses are going to have to discard their high-carbon operations, says Froneman. Some of Sibanye's, such as its ultra-deep gold mines, will come to an end in 10 years' time."You'll have to grow your business being very cognisant of buying low-emission projects. The value of projects is going to change based on their environmental profile, and we will be left with unmined resources because they can't be mined in a carbon-responsible way." SA shouldn't assume that because it is the biggest producer of the PGM products needed for the transition to clean energy the world won't be able to afford not to buy them."If you want to see demand destruction, just put that threat in front of an end user," says Froneman. "Their conscience and ethics will drive them to develop alternative technologies and we will constantly lose out."The world will just move to a different place. We're completely dispensable if that's what is needed."Froneman has been in round-the-clock virtual meetings with international investors who, in addition to concerns about the industry's ability to meet carbon neutrality targets, cite the breakdown of local government as a major deterrent to investment."Investors see the conditions under which companies like ours have to operate, which take away our competitiveness, such as having to deal with a lack of service delivery."We spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to fix up the mess we find in local government, that could be spent on creating value."We're having to deal with community issues based on a lack of service delivery that is not our responsibility, all of which leads to us being uncompetitive."And we're competing on the world stage, we don't just compete in South Africa. Which is why you have to acknowledge what investors are saying."Escalating community protests are becoming increasingly disruptive for business."The plight of municipalities and lack of service delivery is only getting worse, so social unrest is increasing."We identified anarchy as a risk a good many years ago and we're now seeing it all over," he says.His message to investors is that "we back ourselves to prosper in this environment, as difficult as it is. We've demonstrated that."We tell them that we continue to engage with government to try to get changes, and about our in-house initiatives to deal with these problems."But it's a hard sell, he admits."It doesn't result in a lot of new foreign direct investment in South Africa."In spite of the commodities boom, foreign investors are looking to other jurisdictions."This is the third commodity bull cycle that we are possibly going to miss out on."Meanwhile, capital investment in projects by local companies is also not happening, he says."This requires changes in economic policy and a different environment. I don't see any signs of this."All we get is talk about how we're going to spend money on infrastructure. We can't fund that. Business cannot just keep on giving and giving. Business has to flourish in its own right, otherwise investors won't allow you to use their hard-earned cash to reinvest."The economic consequences are exorbitant."The state budgeted R100bn for the fiscus from mining last year and they got R200bn. That was only a portion of the year with a significant interruption from Covid."In a friendlier investment environment the fiscus would be getting four or five times that, Froneman says. At the heart of the problem is the government's ideologically driven need for total control."Their economic recovery plan involves practically no outside interventions from business. It's all about infrastructure spending and them raising the money, which they think they can do but I don't believe they can. They don't want to acknowledge the role of business, it doesn't suit their agenda."Nowhere has this been more starkly illustrated than in the government's inadequate vaccine rollout programme. He says Sibanye could have vaccinated their 80,000-plus employees and their families by now, at a rate of 18,000 per day, if the government had allowed them to. Instead, they're still unvaccinated and vulnerable to the third wave.It would be devastating for the company and the country if their employees couldn't work because of a Covid resurgence."The last quarter's fiscal improvements have all happened because of mining and the commodity super-cycle. That's been a godsend to the fiscus. "You now introduce the risk of major disruptions, perhaps even lockdowns, because we're so far behind with our vaccination programme."

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