The year 2012 seems likely to be a defining one for the Mongolian mining sector. The size of the country’s considerable mineral wealth has not yet been determined, but the involvement of many of the world’s largest mining companies is a testament to the sector’s potential. Several milestones are expected in 2012, including the launch of commercial production at Oyu Tolgoi (OT), the copper and gold deposit whose development has been partially paid for by the largest bank financing deal in the history of mining worldwide.

TAVAN TOLGOI: Another key achievement could be an agreement on developing nearby Tavan Tolgoi (TT), the world’s largest untapped coal reserve and a prized asset for mining companies from Russia, China, the US, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. The government has decided to split TT in two, keeping one half to develop on its own and inviting international players to work the other half. To finance the extraction of its share of the huge coal deposit, the state mining company is planning an international equity initial public offering (IPO). In another expected highlight for 2012, the firm will likely launch IPOs simultaneously on the Mongolian Stock Exchange (MSE) and the London Stock Exchange, since the local exchange is unable to provide the amount of required capital.

The history of TT encapsulates both the promise and the challenge of modern-day Mongolia, a landlocked country with just two neighbours, Russia and China, both of which have ambitions on a global scale and see Mongolian assets as a part of their strategy. Most of the mined ore in Mongolia is likely to be headed for China – the massive resources are an ideal fit with China’s long-term and large-scale industrialisation efforts. Mongolia’s strategic position means the political leadership in Ulaanbaatar must consider geopolitics as a part of its decision-making process, instead of simply focusing on how best to fill state coffers.

CHALLENGES: As foreign executives increasingly fill local hotels, and cranes dominate the skyline in the capital, the press and opposition politicians are focused on “Dutch disease”, corruption and what Mongolia can do to avoid the negative side effects of a growing resources sector. These challenges have affected foreign companies in the past, and concerns about resource nationalisation and contract sanctity linger. Changes to the laws in 2006 caused many mining companies to leave as quickly as they had arrived. Though activity has increased after a windfall profits tax – considered excessive by the private sector – was scrapped in 2011, Mongolia is still working to strike a balance between getting the best deal for its citizens and establishing a fair and consistent legal regime to provide the certainty and stability required by major mining companies looking to invest. Successful partnering with foreign firms at OT and TT, as well as a new mining law that is now in the works, represent a chance for Mongolia to begin putting these fears to rest. It helps that the country is home to several quality deposits on a massive scale. “We are certain that in two to three years the returns from OT, TT and other mining projects will double or triple GDP,” said B. Enebish, the executive director of Erdenes MGL, the state mining company.

RECORD: While Mongolia’s mining sector is currently resting more on potential than actual production, the amount of money invested in the country by foreigners so far is an indication of projected growth moving forward. The $4bn that international banks have extended to pay for the development of OT represents the largest mining finance deal ever, shattering the old record of $2bn, according to David Paterson, former spokesman for Rio Tinto’s Ulaanbaatar operations.

It is uncommon to see multinational firms invest that much in a country with such a short track record. International investors often cite Mongolia’s transition from a communist to a democratic and free-market system in 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, as a reason for buying in big. Though the country is still adjusting to capitalism, it successfully adapted to democracy, and it is reassuring that no one politician is able to start or stop a project. There are lingering concerns, however, about the country’s ability to partner with foreign companies. Another risk in the short term comes from the global economy. The recent international economic downturn hit Mongolia in the form of falling copper prices, which are not expected to return to pre-crisis levels so long as the global economy is weak. Provided Mongolia can begin production at its key mining assets in the near future, however, a major assault on the country’s balance sheet is not likely. OT alone is expected to boost GDP by a third of its current size. Mongolia is a candidate to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the next two decades, according to one of the rosier forecasts, from Citibank. “Mongolia is not dependent on the world economy,” said Cameron McRae, the chief executive of OT, which is being managed by Rio Tinto, one of the principal stakeholders in the project. “They just need two or three of these major mining projects.”

BIGGEST EARNER: Despite the sense that things are just getting started, mining is already a major contributor to the Mongolian economy. The sector currently accounts for 30% of GDP and 32% of government revenue, according to research from Resource Capital, an investment bank that focuses on the country. About 45,000 Mongolians, or about 5% of the workforce, are employed in mining. According to the Mineral Resources Authority of Mongolia (MRAM), the government regulator, mining accounts for 87.5% of exports. MRAM data shows 1170 mineral deposits in the country, and 8000 occurrences overall. This includes more than 60 types of minerals, although the main ones are coal, copper, gold, uranium, molybdenum and iron. It is likely that rare-earth mineral extraction is also viable on a commercial scale, but as of 2011 no mines were producing them.

Just 27% of Mongolia has been surveyed to a scale of 1:50,000, which means there could be much more in the ground than what is currently known. In late 2011, 15.2% of the country was covered by one of the two types of licences offered by MRAM – exploration licences are held for around 14.8% of this total, and mining licences 0.4%. By late 2011 the authority had issued about 3900 licences, 2900 of which were for exploration and 1000 of which were for mining. Of the total mining licences issued, around 270 had reached the production stage, half of which are gold mines.

DEVELOPMENT STALLED: No new exploration licences have been issued since 2009, when environmental concerns were cited as a reason to halt development. The MRAM is expected to begin accepting applications for new licences in the beginning of 2013. In addition to environmental questions, Mongolia’s government is still sorting out a legal framework for the sector and grappling with the important issue of how to maximise its returns without chasing off foreign companies, which provide expertise. In the past, obtaining a permit was easy and many were bought but not actioned. MRAM is now working to reduce the number of inactive licences and ensure that only qualified companies can get one.

Though it is impossible to calculate how much is available for extraction, as exploration is far from finished, officials have set a baseline for the value of what is known at a minimum of $1trn. Taking that worst-case figure and dividing it by the population of the country ( just under 3m) comes to a staggering $333,000 per capita in mineral wealth.

The combination of huge mineral deposits and a tiny population to spread the wealth amongst is reminiscent of the wealthier oil economies of the Gulf, such as Qatar or the UAE. Like those nations, Mongolia has seen a surge of interest in recent years. Overall investment in the sector will range from $12bn-20bn during the 2011-15 period, according to projections from the Trade and Development Bank, which ranks as Mongolia’s largest commercial lender.

LEGAL EVOLUTION: The history of mining in the country goes back further than the country’s transition to democracy. Prior to 1990, Soviet and communist-bloc geologists spent time surveying in Mongolia. A number of projects that were developed during this period are still producing, such as copper deposits in Erdenet and several active coal fields.

Following the transition to the post-Soviet era, enterprising Mongolians sought mining licences in order to gain wealth. At that time licence applicants did not have to demonstrate mining expertise or even be a registered corporation. The idea was to hold on to a licence in the hopes that perhaps an active exploration effort nearby would be a success, this increasing the value of adjacent ones.

LICENCES: The first comprehensive mining law, which was drafted with the help of the World Bank, was put in place in 1997. The law allowed for a three-year exploration period, which could be extended twice to a total of nine years. Mining licences were granted for 30 years with two 20-year extension periods possible. The rules imposed a 5% royalty on export sales, and an obligation to ensure that 90% of the workforce at a mine be Mongolian citizens. The royalty regime has since been replaced with a graduated approach, where the state’s take increases as prices do. For most minerals the rate does not exceed 5%. The exception is copper – if prices hit $9000 per tonne, the royalty rate rises to 15%.

BIG INTEREST: The 1997 law and Mongolia’s huge mining potential combined to draw interest from foreign companies. Ivanhoe Mines, the Canadian company that is developing OT, arrived in 2000, for example, taking over licences held by BHP Billiton. According to Jim Doak, the chairman of Khan Resources, another Canadian firm, by 2005 there were approximately 140 junior mining companies from Canada alone operating in Mongolia. “The law was very liberal, especially concerning mining regulation,” said Erdenes MGL’s Enebish. “It operated on a first-come, first-serve basis, with exploration and mining licences bundled together.”

Progress came to a sudden halt in 2006, however, when the government introduced new legislation. The 2006 law gave the state the right to an equity stake in all projects deemed of strategic value, and a 50% stake in any project in which exploration had been partially financed with public funds. The cap was set at 34% for deposits in which the state contributed no exploration capital. The law required the government to pay fair market prices for its share of a project. Additionally, foreign miners of strategic deposits were required to list on the MSE. According to a 2007 US diplomatic cable, however, bureaucratic obstacles relating to the 2006 law’s finer points made it difficult for miners, particularly those holding uranium licences, to comply with the new law. Even less popular was the introduction of a new windfall profits tax, which was set at 68% on gold production whenever the global gold price was at least $850 per ounce, and applied to copper mines when copper rose past $2600 a tonne.

Many mining companies reacted to the 2006 changes by shutting down operations and leaving Mongolia entirely. Activity slowed further with the passage of an environmental protection law in 2009, which caused the cancellation of 1782 licences (see analysis). Furthermore, in the same year, the government decided to suspend the awarding of new licences.

Later in 2009, however, Mongolia pledged to eliminate the windfall profits tax by January 2011, which helped rekindle interest in the sector, despite the ongoing legal uncertainties. This was a catalyst behind the landmark deal to develop OT struck by Ivanhoe, its partner Rio Tinto and the government. Today, strategic deposits are defined as all major uranium sites as well as deposits of other metals that are large enough to potentially impact GDP by 5% or more. MRAM maintains the list of strategic deposits, and Erdenes MGL, the state-owned mining company, is responsible for developing them alongside international partners.

CHANGES SOUGHT: With public pressure to maximise mining returns ramping up, Mongolia’s elected leaders have faced criticism for the OT deal in recent years. As recently as October 2011 the government publicly pondered reopening the agreement and demanding a greater stake above the 34% it currently holds.

Under the existing law, the government’s 34% stake in strategic deposits rises to 51% after 30 years, but Prime Minister S. Batbold said in the opening session of parliament in October 2011 that the escalation date should be changed to the point at which the private partners recover their initial costs. This demand was abandoned the following day, but the episode served as a reminder that contracts signed with the government are not necessarily a reliable predictor of expectations. “It is one thing to say Mongolia is an attractive environment,” Rio Tinto’s McRae told OBG in the wake of the incident. “It is another to say it has a track record.”

UPCOMING CHANGE: The legal environment for mining was again in flux in late 2011, with a new mining law expected in 2012. Details about the new law were scant, however, as the government is somewhat secretive about new legislation. MRAM officials told OBG that only a few individuals in their agency had the chance to contribute to the small committee of politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the upcoming draft law. Nonetheless, some expectations have emerged based on common sentiments. One major theme will likely be boosting local participation at the expense of foreign involvement, perhaps by mandating a threshold for local content in mining services, according to D. Bat-Erdene, a geologist and executive for the mining division of Monnis International, a local conglomerate.

SERVICES: While questions remain about how exploration and mining will work in the future, it is clear that the market for mining services is set to rise. On a small scale, this means importing trucks, drills and gear, building facilities at mines and providing catering and logistics services. Larger projects include building power plants, roads, railroads and other key pieces of basic infrastructure. As of late 2011, it was unclear how the output from OT and TT will get to its expected buyers, which are predominately Chinese companies. The mines are located within about 200 km of the border with China, but at present there is only one paved road to the neighbouring country, the construction of which was completed in October 2011. Early production at the half of TT that is operated by Erdenes MGL was being trucked along dirt tracks, causing dust storms in addition to creating environmental hazards for local herders.

RAIL UPGRADE: In an effort to solve the country’s transport issues, the government recently announced a plan to expand the rail network. The plan calls for a curved east-west line, which would terminate near Choibalsan in the north-east, where trains can then transfer to the Trans-Siberian Railway, giving them access to ports on Russia’s Pacific coast. Spurs would also link up with China’s rail network.

The plan gives Mongolia the ability to move its exports to two separate markets. It would be simpler and cheaper to build just one link from China to the southern Gobi Desert, where many of the main deposits are located, but setting up shop as a mineral exporter with just one delivery route would give the buyers more leverage than the sellers. While shipping ore several thousand km to Russia’s Pacific ports will no doubt be expensive, Mongolian officials believe the option will result in buyers paying the highest possible price for local goods.

A proposal presented by the government in July 2011 to an international consortium to develop part of TT included a proposal for Russia’s state railway company to build the east-west line. In response, Russia pledged $7bn in spending inside Mongolia as a part of the deal, in addition to a 50% discount on freight costs. However, nothing has been finalised and it remains unclear whether or not the plan will come to fruition. However, a decision is expected to be made before the June 2012 parliamentary elections. Another option to get the railway plan moving forward is the recently created Development Bank, a public sector lender that plans to oversee international bond sales denominated in a foreign currency to raise capital.

COAL: Unless exploration in the coming years reveals a substantial amount of some other mineral, coal will be the most important commodity for Mongolia. At a press conference in February 2011, D. Zorigt, the minister of mineral resources and energy, pegged known coal resources at 162bn tonnes, which is equal to around 10% of all known deposits on the planet.

As of the end of 2011 there were 14 known basins and 17 producing mines in the country, according to Akmal Aminov, a mining analyst in the Ulaanbaatar office of Eurasia Capital, an investment bank focused on Central Asia. Production includes higher grades of coal, such as coking coal, which is one of the two primary ingredients for making steel. Other grades include bituminous coal and sub-bituminous coal, both suitable for electricity generation, and lignite, a low-grade brown coal used for heating and electricity production.

The coal sector has been a source of constant activity for investment banks in recent years. Since 2007 there have been 43 mergers or acquisitions in the sector, worth $1.2bn, and more are expected, according to Eurasia Capital. In a recent development, for instance, in November 2011, Banpu, Thailand’s largest coal producer, acquired Hunnu Coal in a $493m takeover, having previously bought a 12% stake in the firm in March. Hunnu has 11 coking and thermal coal projects in Mongolia, a country that Banpu has said has great potential for coal production due to its proximity to key export markets, and China in particular.

Coal recently surpassed copper as Mongolia’s largest export. According to MRAM, Mongolian mines produced 25m tonnes of coal in 2010, 18m tonnes of which was exported. The bulk of that – an estimated 16.6m tonnes, according to Resource Capital – went to Chinese customers. In 2010 coal exports were worth $877m, according to the National Statistical Office (NSO). The Mongolian National Mining Association projects overall coal production will reach 60m tonnes and sales to China will reach 25m-40m tonnes a year by 2015.

MAJOR PLAYERS: While TT is the headline grabber, several other major coal properties are also important. Currently the biggest producer, and the largest domestic supplier, is Baganuur, a state-owned firm that controls a 1.3bn-tonne reserve of mostly lower-quality lignite coal, which qualifies as one of the country’s 15 strategic deposits. A 25% stake in the firm is listed on the MSE. Baganuur faces a handful of common public-enterprise challenges, including operating inefficiencies, artificially set prices for domestic sales and a lack of capital. The state intends to fully privatise the firm, potentially in 2012. Total output at Baganuur is about 2.8m tonnes per year, according to Resource Capital.

The Mongolia Mining Corporation (MMC), the majority of whose shares are owned by well-established Mongolian companies, produced some 7m tonnes of coal in 2011. Its 489.9m-tonne Ukhaa Khudag deposit is in the southern Gobi Desert, close to OT and TT. MMC was the first Mongolian firm to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in an October 2010 IPO that raised $748m.

South Gobi Resources (SGR), currently the largest foreign-owned producer, is working the Ovoot Tolgoi mine, also in the Southern Gobi province. The deposit has a probable reserve of 114.1m tonnes of thermal and coking coal. Ivanhoe Mines owns 57% of SGR, which is listed on the Toronto and Hong Kong exchanges. As of late 2011, the firm’s production target for 2012 was 8m tonnes. The company has also announced a $20m exploration programme for 18 other licensed areas and SGR is currently developing two other deposits – the Soumber deposit and Ovoot Tolgoi – into mines.

COAL MINING: The Mongolyn Alt Corporation (MAK), which was originally a gold mining company, holds the licence for Nariin Sukhait, a 134m-tonne deposit of high-grade coal in the southern Gobi Desert and another one of the country’s 15 strategic deposits. The firm is reliant on the nascent railroad plan to expand from its current output of 3m tonnes per year. MAK recently announced a plan to build a coal-washing plant to capture more of the value from the deposit, according to research from Resource Capital.

Both MAK and SGR have sales agreements with Winsway Coking Coal Holding, a firm that trades in Hong Kong and is one of the biggest foreign buyers of Mongolian coal. In December 2011 Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal firm, announced that it had acquired a 5.1% equity interest in Winsway. The two companies operate a joint venture in Mongolia that holds coal and uranium licences. Companies such as Winsway and Trafigura, a resources-trading firm based in Amsterdam, are increasing their presence in Mongolia and looking to sign long-term supply deals (see analysis).

Shivee Ovoo, another strategic deposit, contains about 2.1bn tonnes of lignite, but is currently only producing around 2m tonnes per year. Several state-owned and private firms hold licences for the government-owned project, including Shine Shivee, which is owned by the Live Energy Group, a local mining firm. Live Energy recently signed a contract with Envidity, a multinational exploration and logistics company, to spend $1bn on an underground coal-gasification project at the site. Since then, however, the local player has reportedly backed out of the deal. According to Envidity, Shine Shivee executives have sold stakes in Shivee Ovoo to Chinese and Malaysian companies that are not interested in the gasification project, which explains the company’s change in actions. In a November 2011 press release, Envidity asked the Mongolian government to get the deal back on track.

Underground coal-gasification is a fairly new process that is expected to play a major role in the future of coal mining around the world. Pilot projects, studies and other pre-commercial developments are currently under way in a number of countries, including the US, Japan, China, Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam, according to the World Coal Association. In simple terms, the process involves injecting air and steam into a coal bed, which creates a flame front that gasifies the coal immediately. The gas is then extracted and used.

Although coal is generally exported in its raw state, several companies in Mongolia are aiming to do some basic processing in the coming years, in an effort to control more of the value chain. Several companies are planning coal-washing plants; only MMC currently owns such a facility. In addition to the MAK project, according to G. Temuulen, the deputy director of Erdenes MGL, the state’s flagship mining company plans to build a plant with at least 15m tonnes of capacity.

COPPER: With known reserves of between 12m and 14m tonnes, Mongolia is the world’s 12th-largest source of copper. According to data from the NSO, Mongolian copper concentrate exports reached 568,700 tonnes – from which 130,000 tonnes of copper was extracted – in 2010, pulling in $771m. While OT makes the headlines with its significant reserves waiting to be mined, two other copper deposits are big enough to make the list of 15 strategic mines. The mine at Erdenet, a city to the north-west of Ulaanbaatar, has 1.2bn tonnes of ore reserves and resources and around 4m tonnes of copper. The Erdenet deposit, which accounts for 100% of current production, is majority-owned by the state through Erdenes MGL, while the Russian government owns a 49% stake. This joint venture was established in 1978, and in 2010 output at the mine was responsible for 12% of GDP. The third strategic deposit is at Tsagaan Suvarga, where MAK has a 100% stake, and is in the early stages of development.

In the past Mongolia has suffered from an overreliance on copper, as when prices collapsed during the recent global financial crisis. In late 2011 the short-term outlook for copper prices was negative because of slow economic growth in the US and the ongoing EU debt crisis. In late November a contraction in Chinese manufacturing exacerbated this negative sentiment, and major securities firms such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs cut their forecasts for commodity prices in 2012. However, while the short-term trends for copper sold from the Erdenet mine are negative, it is too early to know whether Erdenes MGL’s OT project – which is slated to begin production in 2013 – will be affected. In general, the long-term outlook remains remarkably positive. China may be feeling the contagion effects of developed-market malaise, but it is the biggest user of copper in the world, and therefore it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which there is not significant demand for the mineral. Furthermore, OT is considered crucial to world copper supply in the future, as no other deposits of its size are expected to come to market in the foreseeable future.

GOLD: Mongolia exported 5.1 tonnes of gold in 2010, worth $278.3m. In addition to OT there is just one other gold deposit on the country’s top-15 list. The Boroo gold mine, which is about 100 km north of Ulaanbaatar, has been mined since 2003 and is close to depletion. It is one of the country’s only hard-rock gold sources. Small-scale miners, who extract alluvial gold from dried-up riverbeds, have historically carried out most gold mining in Mongolia. Environmental concerns led to the cancellation of many licences in recent years mainly due to a law passed in 2009 that banned mining in water basins and forests. The government had planned to compensate miners for lost licences, but the estimated cost of $500m triggered a rethink of the strategy, and a solution has yet to be found (see analysis).

Boroo is 100% owned by Centerra Gold, a Canadian mining firm, which reported output of 1.5m oz from 2004 to 2010. Centerra operates an on-site processing mill, and, as production at the mine has dropped off, it has been refining stockpiles of low-grade ore for now. Centerra wants to transition its gold production to Gatsuurt, which is located 35 km from Boroo and has an estimated 11.3 tonnes of ore containing 1.23m oz of pure gold. Gatsuurt is connected by road to Boroo, and Centerra’s plan is to ship output from the young mine to the mill at the older one for processing. However, the firm currently lacks final approval from the state due to the suspending of licences after the environmental protection law was passed in 2009. In November 2011 Centerra chief executive Steve Lang told local media that he expected amendments to the law that would allow mining at Gatsuurt, but further delays might be caused by parliament’s recent focus on OT.

URANIUM: There is currently no uranium production in Mongolia, but the country’s considerable reserves have caused controversy in recent years, in part due to the sensitivity inherent in mining a substance crucial to manufacturing nuclear weapons. It is not possible to know exactly what is in the ground, as most exploration in the past has been handled by Russian interests, often government agencies. Russian authorities have carried out 190 studies on Mongolia’s six major uranium fields, granting Mongolia access to only 34 of those reports, according to Resource Capital.

The major deposit is at Dornod, in the north-east. The area was home to an active mine during the communist era, but has not been in production since 1995. In 2005 Khan Resources, a Canadian firm, took over the asset in a joint venture with the Mongolian government and Atomredmetzoloto (ARMZ), which is part of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear agency. Khan, which controlled 58% of the project at the time, began developing the site. However, in 2009 the government suspended Khan’s permits, citing environmental concerns. A few months later it passed a new law on uranium deposits allowing the state to take a 51% stake in any mine in which it had previously invested in exploration.

In November 2009 ARMZ launched a hostile takeover bid for Khan, offering $0.61 a share, or about $35m at the time, far below market value. Khan found a rival organisation willing to bid more – the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) offered $0.90 per share. Mongolia was subject to considerable Russian pressure to strip Khan’s rights in order to leave major stakes in the project for Russia and Mongolia, according to Khan’s chairman, Jim Doak. In the months following the Chinese bid, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made visits to Ulaanbaatar to lobby Mongolian leadership on the issue, he said. In April 2010 Khan’s licences were revoked. In December 2010 the two other joint-venture partners, the Russian and Mongolian state agencies, announced a new plan for Dornod that did not involve Khan. The company sued the Nuclear Energy Agency in Mongolia to get back its asset and won, but the government body has so far ignored the judgement, said Akmal Aminov, Eurasia Capital’s mining analyst. Khan is also in the process of suing ARMZ in its home jurisdiction in Canada, and it has brought a case before the UN’s Commission on International Trade Law, which held hearings on the topic in November 2011.

OTHER MINERALS: Production of iron ore began in 2007, again with China envisioned as the primary customer. In 2008 China Investment and Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, invested in Iron Mining International, a local firm that owns and operates the Eruu Gol iron mine, which has 304m tonnes of proven reserves. In 2010 the firm’s exports reached $251m in value and 3.5m tonnes in volume, according to Resource Capital. These figures exceeded the forecast of the Trade and Development Bank, one of the country’s largest lenders. Additionally, zinc exports were at $134.1m in 2010, according to the NSO, accounting for 4.6% of total exports. Flourspar and molybdenum made up around 2% each in the same period.

OUTLOOK: The Mongolian mining sector is still very much in the early stages of development. Currently the sector is defined more by potential than production. The government has yet to settle on a legal regime that strikes the right balance for all parties involved. Similarly, the necessary infrastructure is lacking in many regions. Yet despite these challenges, the fact that major mining firms are looking to enter Mongolia en masse is an indication of the sector’s attractiveness.