A mine, as any fule kno, is a hole in the ground with a liar on top. It would be unfair, libellous even, to call Chris Fraser, the man with the vision for a vast mining project near Whitby in Yorkshire, anything so horrid. He was the super-optimistic visionary who saw a way to help feed the world while providing profitable employment for hundreds of locals.

Alas, it has not turned out that way, and now it seems we are moving to the last act of this Greek Tragedy. The story starts with the discovery of a vast underground deposit of polyhalite, which is best described as a poor-quality fertiliser. Awkwardly, the deposit is in a National Park, about the last place you would want a massive mine.

Mr Fraser’s solution was truly visionary. The mined rock would travel underground to Whitby, from where it would be shipped round the world as a natural fertiliser. This is what I wrote in the FT in 2019: “The mine demands a 23-mile underground conveyor belt, a world first and an engineering challenge that looks tougher than drilling the Channel tunnel.”

As I added: “Today, the financial engineering looks even harder.” It was clearly beyond anything that Mr Fraser and his Sirius Minerals, the owner of what is now the Woodsmith mine, could finance. But help was at hand in the somewhat unlikely shape of Anglo American

As an international mining giant, Anglo got no thanks from the army of Yorkshire locals who had sunk their savings into Sirius. They convinced themselves they were being bought out for a song. Others described it as a dose of misplaced philanthropy.

The £405m Anglo paid proved to be merely the down payment. Sirius had already spent $1.4bn. Mr Fraser left in 2021, and last year when Anglo had spent the same again it wrote the value down by $1.7bn. A further $4.8bn is needed to get to first production.

Anglo’s then CEO described the project as “more attractive than Jansen.” Not many people agreed. Jansen is a conventional, low-cost potash (fertiliser) mine in Canada. It is owned by BHP. 

Oh dear. Now BHP is trying to buy Anglo, Woodsmith is toast, despite the sunk costs. Anglo’s current CEO, Duncan Wanblad, is fighting for the group’s independence, and the prospect of spending another $5bn for an unproven and probably inferior end product is not helping.

This week’s presentation of his escape plans included a carefully-hedged endorsement of Woodsmith. It will provide no comfort to those in Yorkshire who lost savings in Sirius, or who hoped for employment in an area which needs it. However, as any Yorkshireman would doubtless appreciate, if it doesn’t make money, it’s not a business, it’s a charity.

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