Mongolian lawmakers have approved plans for a rail line linking with Russia to help tap large coal deposits in the south, the latest move in the long-delayed project that will help make the poor but mineral-rich nation less dependent on exporting to China.
The landlocked country of 2.7 million people is trying to retain more of its natural wealth from its huge mineral deposits, including copper, gold and coal. Plans to expand output and open new mines have stalled as the government struggles to re-negotiate terms on mining concessions with big foreign companies.
The huge Tavan Tolgoi coking coal deposit in the south Gobi region, estimated to have more than 6 billion tons of coal, has attracted interest from 10 international mining companies including China"s Shenhua Energy, a Russian consortium led by Gazprom, and Australia"s BHP Billiton.
Lawmakers on Thursday voted nearly unanimously in favor of building the line and making it broad gauge, refering to the distance between the rails, so it could link up with Russia"s rail network. There were concerns that if the rail were standard gauge like China"s rail system, too much of the commodity would end up flowing to coal-hungry China at bargain prices. China currently takes about two thirds of Mongolia"s exports.
The deposits are located only about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Chinese border but Transportation Minister Battulga Khaltmaa said Mongolia would rather sell processed coal to Japan and South Korea. "The policy will greatly boost the economic development of Mongolia. Instead of shipping raw materials directly to one market, jobs and value-added production will be created in Mongolia," he said.
The 1,100 kilometer (683.54 mile) railway will connect Tavan Tolgoi to the Russian border, the minister said. The country will invite international bidding for the railway"s construction, which is expected to be completed in two years.
Tavan Tolgoi was discovered in the 1950s, when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite. The country made a peaceful transition to democracy in the early 1990s.
Mining giant BHP Billiton earlier held rights to the project but judged the deposit too expensive to develop.