Rio Tinto to keep New Zealand aluminium smelter until 2024

New Zealand's Aluminium Smelter (NZAS) converts alumina into aluminium using renewable hydroelectricity. Credit: Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO; LSE: RIO; ASX: RIO) has inked a power deal with New Zealand’s Meridian Energy, which will allow the miner to keep its aluminium smelter at the bottom of the South Island running until December 2024.

The world’s second-largest mining company said in July that it would close this year New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter (NZAS), the country’s single-largest power user, due to high costs and a weak market.

The decision was widely criticized by politicians and local power firms, as it would leave more than 1,000 people unemployed. NZAS is also the country’s top electricity consumer, using roughly 13% of the nation’s power supply.

The announcement today delays the closure of the smelter by at least three years.

Rio Tinto noted that talks with the government to address the smelter’s high transmission costs were ongoing.

“The extension provides certainty to employees, the local community and customers while providing more time for all stakeholders to plan for the future,” the company outlined in a press release.  

New Zealand’s Energy Minister Megan Woods and Finance Minister Grant Robertson welcomed the news, but gave no details about the status of the ongoing talks about cutting Rio Tinto’s transmission charges, which would come in return for a plan to remediate the site when the smelter closes.

“Today’s news is particularly welcome given the economic uncertainty created by the global Covid-19 pandemic,” Robertson said in a separate statement.

“[But] Understanding the extent of the environmental impact of the smelter and removal of toxic waste from this site remain a bottom line for the government,” he noted.

The facility, a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical, processes alumina from refineries in Queensland and Western Australia, exporting 90% of its output.

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