The Mongolian government is seeking to increase its stake allocation in the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project from 34% to 50%, leaving its developers rethinking if it was a good deal at all to have initiated the project.
The request surprised the consortium working on the copper-gold exploration, the Rio Tinto Group and Ivanhoe Mines Ltd.
"We have sent the proposal to Ivanhoe to renegotiate the timeframe for us to increase the government stake," Mongolia's Mining minister Dashdorj Zorigt told reporters at Oyu Tolgoi on Saturday.
Although there is a provision allowing the Mongolian government to hike its claim to the figure it wanted, it is only permissible after 30 years from the agreement's effectivity date. The parties signed the agreement in 2009.
"We respect the government of Mongolia and when they give us the notification to come talk, we'll have those talks," Cameron McRae, chief executive of Oyu Tolgoi, was quoted in The Financial Times.
"But I think what we are demonstrating is that the investment agreement is like a contract, and we're going to honor our end and at least we can expect the government to honor its commitments," the chief executive added.
Some members of Mongolia's parliament called for the Oyu Tolgoi investment agreement to be re-examined after noting trends that demand for metals, especially for copper, will continue to escalate regardless of a downfall in the commodity's price index following the global financial meltdown.
But analysts said as governments across Asia , Africa and Latin American push for increased claims, royalties and high taxes on miners, it could prove detrimental to their resource projects. This could ward off investors due to contract violation, damaging investor perception and may ultimately lead them to all together abandon the project, analysts noted.
The project is 66 percent owned by Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. and is only half way through completion. Ivanhoe is 48.5-percent owned by Rio Tinto.
The rise of the so-called "resource nationalism" arises as commodity prices trade near record highs. It is today's biggest business threat to global mining companies as countries with rich mineral resources all want to ride on it. Governments aim to utilize the funds to help pay off rising debts and improve economic development.
The Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine, touted to become one of the world's five biggest copper mines, is expected to produce an average of 450,000 tonnes of copper and 330,000 ounces of gold per year over the next 10 years. It is projected to account for one-third of total Mongolian GDP by 2020.
Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. spent more than six years negotiating with Mongolia before an agreement was signed. The site is expected to open in 2013.