Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where's our potash bonanza?

-- Sask. boom dwarfs Manitoba's sector -- Capital demand biggest challenge

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Manitobans can only look longingly across the Saskatchewan line as one of the world's largest corporate deals percolates, featuring valuations unimaginable in the Manitoba corporate sector.

Australian-based BHP Billiton is offering $39 billion to acquire Saskatoon-based Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan in a deal that is making headlines around the world.

There have been plenty of headlines about potash in Manitoba over the years. But while a huge industry has been created in Saskatchewan, producing one-quarter of the world's potash and generating more than $1 billion in provincial royalties annually, nothing but a modest amount of exploration dollars -- and those headlines -- have been generated in Manitoba.

Potash Corp.'s board has rejected the BHP Billiton offer and is now in talks with other potential bidders.

The company's stock closed at $154.51, down $3.29, on Wednesday. In the dying days of the bull market before the market crash in the fall of 2008, Potash Corp. was the largest company in the country by market capitalization.

Manitoba's flirtation with potash -- and, sadly, that's all it's been -- goes back more than 30 years.

One of the main planks of Sterling Lyon's Progressive Conservative party's election campaign of 1981 was to facilitate a $600-million potash mine development in the Russell/Binscarth region, with more than 500 jobs.

Howard Pawley's NDP defeated Lyon, but more headlines ensued about the riches the province would reap from a potash megaproject and the hundreds of jobs it would create.

Partners in the provincial Crown corporation, Manitoba Potash Corp., came and went, with the province retaining ownership of 49 per cent of the deposit along the Saskatchewan border.

But while potash production in Saskatchewan has grown into a world-class undertaking, essentially transforming it from a have-not province, the dream of potash riches in Manitoba continues its long, drawn-out fizzle.

In 2005 Agrium Inc., the Calgary-based potash producer, invested $1 million in St. Lazare and in 2008, Western Potash Corp. started a $5-million exploration project in the same region.

Three years ago, the latest exploration of Manitoba Potash Corp.'s deposit was announced with the province's newest partner, none other than BHP Billiton.

That $15-million exploration project announced in early 2007 was still being touted as the possible source of 360 jobs in the region.

Alas, the latest status report of those efforts, according to Chris Beaumont-Smith, manager of mineral policy and business development at the mineral resources branch of Manitoba Innovation, Energy and Mines, who is effectively the province's representative to Manitoba Potash Corp., is not promising.

"It has been determined the amount of potash there is insufficient to do a large capital investment," Beaumont-Smith said.

Agrium recently acquired a five-year permit on its property and there always remains the possibility its research and exploration could generate results that could lead to the development of a mine.

But there is some thinking in the mining community that if there is any hope at all of potash production in Manitoba, the various properties will have to be combined.

While this province is having its own unqualified successes in the mining sector, they are dwarfed by the scale of capital required for potash production.

For instance, HudBay Mineral's Lalor gold and zinc project near Snow Lake is in the early stages of its $500-million-plus development and is a real boom for the Flin Flon/Snow Lake region.

But in today's dollars, if that Russell/Binscarth potash deposit was large enough to develop, it would cost more than $3 billion to get it going.

It's no wonder the province does not want to let that dream die.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2010 B6

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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