Philippine nickel producer DMCI sees tough year with mine shut, inventory declining

MANILA, March 21 (Reuters) - Philippine nickel producer DMCI Mining Corp, a unit of conglomerate DMCI Holdings Inc, on Thursday said it expected 2019 to be a tough year, with one of its two mines still suspended and its inventory almost depleted.

DMCI’s mines, operated by subsidiaries Berong Nickel Corp and Zambales Diversified Metals Corp, were among those ordered shut in 2016 when the government launched an industry-wide crackdown on miners as part of a push to ramp up environmental protection.

The closures and the threat of more mines being suspended in what, at the time, was the world’s top nickel ore supplier dramatically lifted prices for nickel.

The Philippines, which has 30 nickel mines, is now the world’s No. 2 nickel ore supplier, behind Indonesia which has been ramping up shipments after lifting a ban on metal exports in 2017.

The countries are the main suppliers of ores to top market China, which uses them to make stainless steel and materials for batteries.

The Philippines’ environment ministry lifted the suspension order on the Berong mine in November last year, but the Zambales Diversified mine remains closed. The two sites account for about 2 percent of the country’s total nickel ore output.

Despite the closures, DMCI has been able to continue selling ores from its stockpiles and made a net profit of 190 million Philippine pesos ($3.6 million) last year, compared with a profit of 99 million pesos in 2017.

But it expects 2019 to be a “tough” year.

“We will be shipping mostly lower grade nickel which fetches a lower price in the market,” DMCI President Cesar Simbulan said in a statement to the local stock exchange. “Our inventory is also nearly depleted.”

DMCI shipped 643,000 wet tonnes of nickel ore in 2018, a 22-percent increase from 525,000 tonnes the year before. The average nickel grade of the shipments stood at 1.70 percent, compared with 1.51 percent the year before.

The company this year expects to ship nickel ore with an average grade of 1.57 percent.

DMCI said its Zambales mine may be permitted to operate again if it meets certain conditions, including continued rehabilitation and reforestation of the mine site.

It said a plan had been submitted to the environment ministry to address those conditions.

$1 = 52.7150 Philippine pesos Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Joseph Radford