By Sonya Dowsett
MADRID (Reuters) - A planned extension of the Panama Canal, one of the world's most important shipping routes, was thrown into doubt on Wednesday after a group of companies said its talks with Panama's government over how to expand the canal had fallen apart.
Group United for the Canal, a consortium led by Spanish builder Sacyr, said in a statement that the government's canal authority had broken off talks on who will pay some $1.6 billion needed to complete the ambitious project. The Panama Canal Authority said it would hold a news conference at 9 a.m. local time.
The breakdown in talks is the latest setback to a project mired in disputes since the consortium, which also includes Italy's Salini Impregilo as well as a Belgian and Panamanian firm, won a bid to double the capacity of the near 50-mile transoceanic cargo route.
Disagreements over cost overruns have already reached international courts and talks between the two sides over how to find the additional cash to finish the project had already been extended twice.
It was unclear whether Wednesday's breakdown was final. In its statement, GUPC - the Spanish acronym by which the consortium is known - said the failure of the talks meant the expansion and up to 10,000 local jobs were at immediate risk.
But the company said it was still seeking a solution for completion of the project, which had been scheduled for 2015.
If the partnership between Panama and the builders is indeed abandoned, it would likely mean further delays while Panama seeks financing and a new construction group.
That in turn, would be a setback for companies worldwide eager to move larger ships through the Panama Canal, including liquefied natural gas (LNG) producers who want to ship exports from the U.S. Gulf Coast to Asian Markets. Delays could also cost Panama millions of dollars in projected revenue from toll charges.
Last month, Panama President Ricardo Martinelli said that Panama had the resources to complete the expansion of the Canal even if talks with GUPC ended.
"We will finish the Canal in 2015 no matter what happens, rain, thunder or lightening," Martinelli told an audience of international investors and executives gathered in Davos, Switzerland. He did not give details as to who would pick up the work or the tab.
Shares in Sacyr plunged over 8 percent on the news before recovering some lost ground while Salini Impregilo fell 1.9 percent.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Panama already had a plan B," said a Madrid-based trader who asked not to be named. "As for Sacyr...they'll push forward with new contracts, but everything they do will be looked at with a magnifying glass from now on."
MONEY RUNS OUT
Disputes over the expansion of the Canal set in almost immediately after GUPC won the bid in 2009. At the time, officials and diplomats expressed concerns over the consortium's ability to complete the project since its requested tab was $1 billion lower than the nearest competitor.
Over the past months, the two sides had been discussing how to fund the $1.6 billion needed to complete the project through a co-financing deal. Disputes about liabilities for the cost overruns, which tally with the amount the consortium say it will cost to finish the work, are being fought out within the terms of the contract and may end up in international arbitration courts.
Spain's public works minister flew out to Panama earlier in the year to mediate talks while the European Commissioner for Industry Antonio Tajani had also offered to mediate negotiations, an offer rejected by the Panamanians.
In its Wednesday statement, the Spanish-led consortium said the Panama Canal Authority had broken off the latest talks, but it did not spell out why. The GUPC said that, in its latest proposal, it had offered $800 million in new and existing funds, while asking the Panama Canal to put in $100 million in funds. It also asked the Canal to extend the deadline by which the consortium needs to return $785 million in advance payments made by the Canal in order to free up cash.
"It is unjust and impossible for the PCA and Panama to expect that private companies will finance $1.6 billion in costs on a project that was to be fully funded by PCA," the consortium said in the statement. It said the Panama Canal had not paid a pending $50 million invoice that had meant to cover salaries this week for subcontractors and workers.
"Without an immediate resolution, Panama and the PCA face years of disputes before national and international tribunals over their steps that have pushed the project to the brink of failure," the consortium added.
For Sacyr, which has 48 percent of the consortium, the work brings in a quarter of its international revenue. Like most Spanish builders, the company relies heavily on foreign orders to offset a sharp economic downturn at home.
Sacyr has provided 476 million euros in cash advances and guarantees to the project. One analyst said this was the worst-case scenario in terms of what losing the project would mean for the builder.
"But the actual impact will only be determined after several years in the courts if there is no final agreement," said Juan Carlos Calvo, analyst at Espirito Santo, adding that losing the contract would not represent a cash outflow for Sacyr as it affected cash advances already paid.
Any loss of the contract would also affect insurer Zurich, which had been involved with discussions. The insurer had proposed converting $600 million of surety bonds into a loan that would free up money to help complete the project a source with knowledge of the matter had said.
(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Madrid and Alessandra Galloni in Rome; Editing by Alessandra Galloni, Pravin Char and Anna Willard)