Northern Territory a top spot to restart Australian economy

Chief Minister Michael Gunner has described the Northern Territory as Australia’s rebound capital, providing the safest and quickest way to get back to business following the COVID-19 pandemic. Australian Mining speaks with two companies about the opportunity.

The Northern Territory is an attractive place to do business, especially in mining.

With numerous targets waiting to be discovered across a range of commodities including gold, rare earths, phosphate and uranium, and Australia’s closest port to Asia in Darwin, the Northern Territory is on the radar of more exploration companies.

Thor Mining is a company set to take advantage of the Northern Territory’s prospective environment after receiving major project status from the Northern Territory Government for the Molyhil tungsten-molybdenum project.

With major project status, Thor Mining can streamline other approvals, such as environmental, traditional owners and other regulatory requirements, allowing the company to move quickly towards production.

With Molyhil’s approvals largely in place, plus an existing agreement with the traditional owners and Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), executive chairman Mick Billing says the support of the Northern Territory Government makes Molyhil more attractive for potential investors.

“All of the big-ticket approvals for Molyhil are as done and dusted as sensibly can be,” Billing tells Australian Mining.

“Where Thor Mining stands currently is there is the potential for us to attract some external investment in the project by way of a joint venture.

“Once finance is finalised, I am fairly confident that development and construction for the plant could begin anytime before the end of this year.”

Production of tungsten and molybdenum could begin at Molyhil within 12 months of the site’s construction being complete, according to Billing.

When operational, Billing anticipates that two thirds of Molyhil’s revenue will come from tungsten and the other third will be from its molybdenum, with there also being potential for a small amount of copper to be produced at the mine.

Billing says the Molyhil project will provide local jobs in the Alice Springs area, with Thor Mining targeting a predominantly local workforce to boost the community in the area.

“Molyhil is a relatively small operation but we still expect to employ people from the Alice Springs or other nearby communities, including some of the local Aboriginal communities,” Billing says.

“With people in the community who live nearby that can competently perform the construction and mine work, it doesn’t make economic sense to fly people in from further afield to do work that can be done more than adequately by people who live much closer.

“This generates jobs in the area then those people send their kids to school and shop at the local supermarket, so $1 spent on one thing goes through the community half a dozen times.”

Thirty kilometres from the Molyhil project, Thor Mining has another prospective tungsten-copper deposit, Bonya, which it holds in a JV with Arafura Resources.

With an estimated three deposits at the Bonya prospect and dozens yet to be found or requiring extensive drill work, Thor is well positioned to take advantage of the Northern Territory’s position as a COVID-19 bounce back region.

“Northern Territory is a great place to operate and gain major project status,” Billing says.

“The Northern Territory is well endowed with mineral deposits, there has been mining at Bootu Creek and Callie for a long time now.

“While well endowed, the Northern Territory is not as heavily explored as some parts of Western Australia or Queensland.

“There is going to be a lot more mineral discoveries in the Northern Territory in the next few years and the government is very supportive of exploration, as is the Northern Territory geological survey group, so it’s a great start for the region.”

Core Lithium is another company with a Northern Territory-based operation that knows the advantages of being so well connected to the world via the Darwin port through its Finniss lithium project.

The company joined the European Battery Alliance in July, allowing it to grow its links with the lithium supply chain and diversify its customer base for the sale of lithium concentrate, servicing growth in the electric vehicle (EV) market.

Core is edging closer to a final investment decision for Finniss, having received regulatory approvals from the Northern Territory Government.

The company also registered a 150 per cent increase in the project’s reserves, leading to a doubling of the project’s mine life to seven years.

Core managing director Stephen Biggins says the Finniss project is conveniently located just a 45-minute drive from Darwin, creating an enormous opportunity to drive the Northern Territory recovery from COVID-19.

“Core Lithium has been working in the Northern Territory now for over 10 years since the company was founded in 2010,” Biggins tells Australian Mining.

“We’re long-term contributors to and believers in the Northern Territory and we are looking to build a project that is going to provide long-term, full-time jobs within a daily commute from the suburbs of Darwin.

“The Finniss project is a unique opportunity in that it’s not a mining project in the middle of nowhere, it’s all within 45 minutes of the city of Darwin, leveraging the advantages of what the Territory already has, including its connections with Asia and the rest of the world.”

Being so close to a capital city means that Core does not need to build facilities such as accommodation camps, haul roads and air strips, with the Darwin International Airport only an hour’s drive from the mine site.

This encourages long-term investment in Darwin, with workers moving to the Northern Territory permanently, rather than working on a fly-in fly-out (FIFO) basis.

As one of the nation’s highest-grade lithium deposits, Core has established relationships within the international lithium market, such as the partnership with the European Battery Alliance, which stemmed from its existing connections with Swiss metal trader Transamine.

Under the agreement, Core Lithium will provide Transamine with 50,000 tonnes of spodumene concentrate from the Finniss project over five years.

“The natural progression from the deal with Transamine was to join the European Battery Alliance to increase our connections and conversations with markets and stakeholders in Europe,” Biggins explains.

“The European Union recently approved the biggest green stimulus program in history with a $US572 billion ($791 billion) plan to stimulate growth.

“A key component of that will be the transition from combustion engine cars to electric vehicles, which in a way has been brought forward by COVID-19 as governments around the world see stimulating economic growth under green strategies as the way forward.”

Core’s agreement with the European Battery Alliance firmly positions Darwin as a key Australian hub with international reach, while keeping jobs and projects localised.

Having operated under strict COVID-19 restrictions as the worst of the pandemic hit Australia, Northern Territory-focussed companies like Core and Thor are ready to ramp up exploration and mining activities again.

Recognising this potential, Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner dubs Darwin as “the comeback capital of Australia”, due to its prospective resources and success in keeping case numbers low, allowing mine workers to get back on the job as quickly as possible.

“The coronavirus crisis has hit the Australian economy hard and we are not immune, but we are on the road to recovery,” Gunner says.

“We are the safest place in Australia, and we have the resources and the people to recover the quickest. There’s a long road ahead, but now is not the time to turn back.”

This feature also appears in the September edition of Australian Mining.

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