UPDATE 2-Australian $7 bln iron ore project partners fall out
* West Pilbara iron ore project already on ice
* Aquila says investor may look to sell its stake
* Building rail lines to project will cost billions (Recasts, adds Aquila, AMCI, POSCO comments)
By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE, Sept 13 (Reuters) - A dispute between Aquila Resources and a partner on the long-delayed $7 billion West Pilbara Iron Ore project in Australia erupted in the open on Friday, heralding a possible ownership shake-up.
The project in western Australia is one of several that has stalled globally as Chinese demand growth has cooled and aspiring miners have struggled to fund multibillion dollar rail lines and ports needed for their new mines.
The proposed mine, once expected to be up and running by 2014, has been held up as Aquila has not had the funds to foot its 50 percent share of the equity funding for the A$7.7 billion ($7.1 billion) mine, rail and port.
Its partners, AMCI and South Korean steel giant POSCO , put the brakes on project spending last year and had again not signed off on a budget for the 2014 financial year, Aquila said in its annual results announcement on Friday.
Aquila said it was uncertain whether AMCI remained committed to holding its 25.5 percent stake in the project.
"Should AMCI Investments Pty Ltd seek to divest its interest, the joint venture agreement contains pre-emptive and change-of-control rights that give (Aquila) some influence over such a divestment and (Aquila) has held discussions with parties exploring potential equity investment in WPIOP," the company said.
However, AMCI co-founder Hans Mende had a different view.
"AMCI retains plenty of liquidity to finance its share of the API development in addition to making other investments in the resources sector," Mende told Reuters in an email. API is the name of the joint venture between Aquila and its partners.
POSCO has not been informed of any plan by AMCI to quit the joint venture, a POSCO spokesman said in Seoul.
Mende said he was under no financial pressure from tax disputes in Australia or a dispute with a major Indian steel producer.
Aquila Chief Executive and top shareholder Tony Poli and general manager Martin Alciaturi declined to say in a phone interview who Aquila had talked to about investing in the project in the event that AMCI decided to sell its stake.
They did not rule out Aquila increasing its stake, given the company is sitting on A$591 million in cash following a string of asset sales, but said the company did not see itself owning 100 percent of the project.
"It needs partners, whether they're off-takers, or whether they're people who are going to help you build the infrastructure," Alciaturi said.
Aquila values its 50 percent stake in the West Pilbara Iron Ore project at A$224 million. So theoretically, AMCI's stake would be worth around A$114 million.
Analysts said even if there was a change in ownership at the project, it would be tough to secure debt funding for the project, despite iron ore prices having proved more resilient than expected this year.
Volatile iron ore prices over the past two years and competition from massive new supplies from giants such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton at much lower cost would raise the hurdle rate, said Lawrence Grech, senior resources analyst at PhillipCapital.
"Nothing will be vanilla in this development. And if we're talking about an extended time period to develop this, they will enter the marketplace in an environment where the growth rate in China's consumption of iron ore is tailing off," he said. ($1 = 1.0781 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Joseph Radford and Richard Pullin)