November 6, 2018 / 4:01 PM / a year ago

Canada's Nutrien eyeing expansion of nitrogen plants as prices climb

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Nutrien Ltd, the world’s biggest crop nutrient producer by capacity, is looking at expanding several nitrogen fertilizer plants in North America due to rising prices, Chief Executive Chuck Magro said on Tuesday.

Nitrogen prices have climbed as China’s shutdown of coal-fired plants and rising European costs of natural gas, a key ingredient in fertilizer production, have curbed capacity outside North America.

“Nutrien is looking at several brownfields in our network, primarily in North America, but it’s too early to talk specifically about that,” Magro said on a quarterly conference call, using the industry term for expanding existing plants.

Magro said prices are not high enough to justify building new plants and that high North American labor costs add risk.

In an interview, Magro added that some plant expansions may be “very minor,” and serve to adjust the mix of nitrogen products produced.

He said opportunities to acquire nitrogen plants from other companies are “fully priced,” and don’t represent ways to create value.

Nitrogen is the most widely used fertilizer to accelerate growth of crops such as corn. Prices look to remain high around $300 per ton at the Port of New Orleans through early 2019, RBC analyst Andrew Wong said in a note on Monday.

Prices are also likely to increase in 2019 for certain crop protection products that are imported from China, due to a 10 percent U.S. tariff applied to Chinese products, said Mike Frank, president of Nutrien’s retail business.

Nutrien reported late on Monday a bigger-than-expected quarterly profit and raised its full-year adjusted profit forecast, driven by strong demand for its potash fertilizer.

Shares jumped on Tuesday by nearly 5 percent in Toronto to C$74.84.

The company said it would permanently close its idled potash mine in the Canadian province of New Brunswick and take a $1.8 billion impairment charge.

Magro said Nutrien expects to close the sale of its stake in Chilean lithium producer SQM by year-end, and use some of the $5 billion in total proceeds from selling shares in several companies to expand farm retail networks in the United States and Brazil.

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Tom Brown and Paul Simao

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