Hogsback walks carefully through the swamps of Kalimantan

THERE IS an awful lot of coal in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, and an awful lot of trouble, which Churchill Mining discovered a few years ago, Bumi plc found out last year, and which, Hogsback suspects, another company, Cokal, is discovering today.

Tim Treadgold

The Churchill case involved a spot of bother with local government officials. While it dates back three years there are signs that it is about to flare up in an international court of appeal.

Bumi’s problems relate to shareholders falling out with members of Europe’s famous Rothschild family clashing with members of Indonesia’s famous Bakrie family.

The Cokal case involves a spot of bother in finalising a corporate deal with a Singapore-based investment company keen to get a foothold in Indonesian coal, but seems to be struggling to attract investor support.

In all three cases the common thread is coal, specifically coal in the steamy jungles of Kalimantan, which is the Indonesia part of the island of Borneo.

At first glance (and apart from the coal link), the three situations do not appear to share a lot in common though they all demonstrate that coal remains an attractive investment, and that some people in Asia will go to great lengths to gain access to it – which is the opposite of what some people in the western world are saying.

In Australia, and the US, for example, there are more people exiting the coal sector than entering because of a belief that demand for coal is drying up, taking profits with it.

Asian investors have a different view. They love coal, recognising that skyrocketing demand for electricity across the region will ensure a long-term future for all sources of fuel and that one of the most profitable sources is coal.

However, there also seems to be little doubt Asian investors (and government officials) believe western companies should leave coal projects for the locals to develop.

That certainly seems to have been the case with Churchill, which did all the early exploration and resource-proving work at the East Kutai project only to have the tenements cancelled and handed to locals.

Bumi’s mistake was that it raised a pile of money in London and sent it to Indonesia in the belief that business there is conducted in the same way as it is in The City – which it isn’t.

Cokal, which owns 60% of the Bumi Barito Mineral coking coal project, appears to have gone about its business in Kalimantan in a somewhat different way. It introduced locals as 40% shareholders to smooth out the east/west divide.

Where Cokal hit a snag was in finding a partner with pockets deep enough to fund the BBM development with its first option, a takeover by Singapore-based Blumont, falling over, and a second option, a $US77 million funding package from Blumont up in the air.

The net result in the Churchill, Bumi and Cokal cases is sharply lower share prices for all three and doubts about their future in the Indonesian coalfields.

It is possible the Cokal case could resolve itself in the next few weeks, if the well-connected Blumont is able to sort out its problems, which have caused the company’s share price in Singapore to crash.

Australian investment analyst turned coal-mining entrepreneur Alex Molyneux has been called in to try and get Blumont’s affairs in order. This is an assignment that will not be easy given that company is also proposing to help out another Australian mining company, Discovery Metals.

Coal has been a major factor in Molyneux’s career which includes time as chief executive of South Gobi, a Mongolian coal miner. He is also chairman of ASX-listed Celsius Coal, which has assets in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Interesting as his Mongolian adventures were, and his exposure to Central Asia, the immediate challenge for Molyneux is to resolve the Cokal question, or risk upsetting the locals in Kalimantan and being sent down the same road as Churchill.

That road has been a very bumpy one for London-listed Churchill, which has fought the loss of its tenements all the way to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, an agency of the World Bank.

A decision is expected next year but even if it wins the question becomes how to force the governor of East Kutai Regency, Isran Noor, to reverse his decisions and reimburse Churchill.

Each case, Cokal, Bumi and Churchill, has different features, but collectively they represent a powerful warning about investing in the high-risk Indonesian coal industry.