A FURIOUS bidding war to control the world's richest nickel discovery in the past 30 years appears to be over, with Inco Ltd. paying out $3.2 billion (US) to capture the prize.
Despite rumors that a new bidder still might surface, Inco of Toronto looks to have won control of Vancouver-based Diamond Fields Resources, a mining company run by flamboyant mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland.
Diamond Fields accepted Inco's bid Wednesday in return for surrendering control of its 50 percent share of the rich nickel deposit found at Voisey's Bay, Labrador, in 1994. The ore body is believed to be the largest, highest-grade nickel find in the world.
Reserves estimated at about 100 million tons are close to the water and near the surface, giving it the potential of being the world's lowest-cost operation. The deposit is also rich in copper and cobalt, which could cover most of the cost of open-pit mining for the nickel.
Gaining control of the Voisey's Bay deposit was critical for Inco, even though it already controls a dominant 25 percent of the world's nickel market. It already owned 25 percent of Voisey's Bay and fought archrival Falconbridge Ltd. of Toronto for Diamond Fields' share since February to insure continued world dominance, analysts say. It now has 75 percent of Voisey's Bay.
By 1998, the find is expected by analysts to be producing 270 million pounds of nickel - about 16 percent of current world production, and 200 million pounds of copper a year. Analysts project about $1 billion a year cash flow.
"It's certainly a nice-looking [ore] deposit," says Manford Mallory, a mining analyst with Research Capital Corp., a Toronto-based brokerage. "That's why people put these multi-billion dollar valuations on it. It's the kind of discovery that mining companies dream about."
But Mr. Mallory says some Inco investors think Inco either paid too much or that betting on continued high demand for nickel is too risky. Inco stock has fallen from $35 (US) a share last fall to $32 Wednesday. Shares of Diamond Fields soared from a few dollars in 1994 to $29 on Wednesday.
Share price is important since Inco is paying for Diamond Fields with 51 million shares of its stock. Mr. Friedland tried to reassure Inco investors that their investment wasn't being diluted, saying Voisey's Bay would "yield such a cornucopia of cash" that Inco can later buy back shares.
Though riding high right now, Friedland has seen the lows of the business as well. His holding company, Ivanhoe Capital Corp. was targeted by US authorities in 1992 following the collapse of Galactic Resources, a US gold-mining venture he headed.
Galactic was operating Summitville, Colo., mine until the US Environmental Protection Agency discovered copper and cyanide waste seeping into the Alamosa River. That river flows into the fertile San Luis farming region. Cleanup efforts have cost $70 million so far. A grand jury last year indicted two Galactic executives, but has not charged Friedland. It was a setback, but he has bounced back.
He was wise enough in 1993 to pay attention when two prospectors came to him with their tale of flying back from a day of exploring for diamonds in Labrador. They had caught a glimpse of sunlight reflected off a rock outcropping. It wasn't diamonds, but it might as well have been.