Tasmanian timber company Gunns’ proposed $2.3 billion Bell Bay Pulp Mill — still reeling from the withdrawal of a key financier — could be facing an uncertain future at the hands of throat-cutting global competitors.

As Gunns intensifies its ailing bid to raise $400 million in fresh equity, sessions of 7th China Pulp & Recycled Fiber Conference — held two weeks ago in Shanghai but not reported in the Australian media — detailed how massive new global pulp mill projects, including Eldorado and Suzano Maranhao in Brazil, Oji in China and Montes del Plata in Uruguay, would lead to a potential glut in the “bleached hardwood Kraft” (BHK) pulp market by the end of next year.

The giant-killing entrants set to produce 4 million extra tonnes of Gunns-style pulp would “likely to outpace demand growth by a considerable amount”, according to a presentation delivered by respected RISI industry analyst Kurt Schaefer.

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Gunns has staked its future on landing a successful joint venture to bed down the 1.1 million tonne mill and move away from its woodchip arm that is struggling to compete with cheap Asian alternatives. But it is also looking to pay down $340 million in debt by next January and industry analysts to claim that a desire to dam torrents of red ink is the real rationale behind the latest capital raising.

Gunns shares have been in a trading halt since March 9 when CEO Greg L’Estrange announced he was seeking a fresh $400 million injection after New Zealand billionaire Richard Chandler backtracked from a previously planned $280 million raising. Gunns shares last traded at a paltry 16 cents from a peak of $4.37 in 2005.

The company says Bell Bay, near Launceston, would produce profits of about $500 million a year according to projections in its recent half-year results briefing. Gunns’ modelling is based on an indicative per-tonne pulp price of $770 a tonne. Yesterday, the price was hovering at about $734 from a peak of $920 on July 20, 2010. Demand for pulp remains flat in Europe and North America but the conference was told it was being being kept afloat at the margins by surging Chinese production that, in turn, sells the paper back into international markets.

Gunns has acknowledged the new capacity about to flood the global market, but said this has been driven by “increased demand”.

In fact, while the Shanghai conference heard the long term pulp price was due for a “modest improvement”, all would depend on seasonal Chinese demand (assuming the avoidance of another global depression). The opening of the three new mills in South America would “depress BHK operating rates substantially”, RISI’s Schaefer said.

In a section “thinking about possible effects a persistent oversupply in BHK”, the noted analyst stated that “high-cost BHK producers are looking over the horizon and seeking escape plans”.

The Shanghai conference also heard that Brazil’s gleaming new Eldorado mill — set to open in December — is able to produce pulp at a fraction of the cost of other countries due to a combination of logistical, infrastructural and climatic advantages.

As green-tinged Tasmanian actuary Naomi Edwards graphically illustrated in 2008, Brazil’s advantage comes from its ability to produce pulp at about half the price as its nearest competitors. Gunns has maintained it wants to compete at the bottom 25% of the market into Shanghai.

Eldorado commercial director Reginaldo Nunes said the company owned 31 trains and 447 rail cars to carry a massive 1.5 million tonnes of pulp each year to its own port on Brazil’s southeast coast. It already has long term supply contracts in place with Asian buyers. Two additional plants with a combined 3 million tonne capacity are planned for 2017 and 2021. China currently imports more pulp from Brazil than any other country with the country’s total bleached pulp output slated to top 13 million tonnes by the time Bell Bay theoretically comes online in 2015.

No specific mention was made in Shanghai of Bell Bay — perhaps an indication of its irrelevance — but on the sidelines of the conference, Crikey has been told that many industry players expressed supreme scepticism that the mill would ever be built.

A number of Australians were in attendance including former Wilderness Society chief Alec Marr, who is now managing Gunns’ former Triabunna Mill on behalf of environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood. He has been trying to find a new leaseholder and operator for the facility without success.

On Monday, Federal environment minister Tony Burke ruled out providing taxpayer assistance to Gunns to construct the facility, despite Tasmanian crossbencher Andrew Wilkie informing the media of the existence of a draft cabinet submission from an “impeccable source”. Wilkie said last ditch funding might be obtained indirectly from the troubled Export Finance and Insurance Corporation.

Respected pulp industry analyst Robert Eastment told Crikey that Bell Bay’s viability would depend global pulp prices that are in turn informed by western demand for Chinese paper. The Chinese continued to build factories to turn the pulp into paper, Eastment said, that was in turn shipped back overseas.

“There are some new mills coming on … so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the end of the world for Gunns,” he said

A Gunns spokesman, Matthew Horan, stated that the Bell Bay projections had “factored in full analysis with pulp pricing and with currency movements and the mill’s financial attraction stands up very well”. Revenue would be shored up by selling excess energy worth $100 million a year into the renewable energy market and through the capacity of Gunns’ own plantation assets to feed the mill. The company says long-term pulp prices will “remain well above Gunns’ cost of production”.

The federal government has legislated for a renewable energy target of 20% by 2020 but the policy will be reviewed later this year, with heavy polluters calling for it to be scrapped.

Horan said the mill had been held to ransom by a sustained disinformation campaign from its opponents, who he says have lied about its capacity to “destroy old growth forests”. In fact, the mill will be fed exclusively by plantation timber and would bolster Tasmania’s Gross State Product, Horan said, employing several thousand people in direct and indirect roles. Preliminary earthworks have already been completed, he said.

But Gunns market analyst Matthew Torenius expressed scepticism over the planned capital raising, telling Crikey that “Gunns has a gun to its head … how can they negotiate on a JV partner when everyone knows their financial position … when they’re not sure it’s the best outcome?”.

Gunns has acknowledged its business is under pressure on other fronts. Its plantation woodchips operation is being edged out by bargain basement South East Asian operations with customers citing “alternative regional supply available at significantly lower cost”. Eastment told Crikey Vietnam is able to ship chips at about $175 a tonne while Gunns’ rate is closer to $225.

The company has hitched its future to the mill’s construction. It recorded a $173 million loss after it wrote down its former forestry assets following a $355 million loss in 2010-2011. It will provide an update to the market on its success in fingering a financier after the Easter break.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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