* Rio expects credit crisis to have no impact on sale of Energy America coal unit
* Firm began contacting potential bidders in mid-May, has seen significant interest
* Expects to complete sale by third or fourth quarter
The global credit crunch is not expected to have an impact on the sale of Rio Tinto's U.S. coal unit, with heavy interest shown both in the United States and abroad, a company official said.
Rio has already contacted potential bidders for Rio Tinto Energy America, and the sale is still on track to be completed in the third or fourth quarters, Mining Executive Jim Berson of the firm's Energy and Minerals unit told Reuters.
We began contacting potential bidders in mid May, and significant interest in acquiring the assets has been expressed by both domestic and multinational players, he said in an email response to questions late on Thursday.
Energy America, second-largest U.S. coal producer by tonnage, was estimated to be worth about $4 billion by an analyst when the sale of the unit was announced in November.
Since then, coal prices have soared on supply problems, and this week JPMorgan raised its 2009 forecast for internationally traded thermal coal by 50 percent to $150 per tonne., while benchmark U.S. coals have doubled in the past year to more than $100 a ton.
NO CHILLING EFFECT
The global credit crisis that has squeezed availability of funds in some sectors was not expected to have any impact on the sale of Energy America, said U.S.-based Berson, who is leading the process.
As evidenced in the coal equity markets, we don't anticipate any chilling effect on the potential transaction from the current credit market conditions.
Share prices of many U.S. coal producers have surged on the back of the run-up in coal prices, with Arch Coal up about 50 percent so far this year.
The chief executive of Rio Tinto's Energy unit, Preston Chiaro, told the Reuters Global Mining Summit in March that the Energy America sale was due to be completed in the third or fourth quarters, and Berson said they were on track to meet that target.
The sale of Energy America is part of Rio's plan to sell $15 billion worth of assets following its takeover of aluminium producer Alcan. Rio aims to sell $10 billion of the total this year and has met about a quarter of the target.
In addition to Energy America, Rio has said it was considering the sale of its talc and borates businesses, Alcan Packaging, Alcan Engineered Products, the Northparkes copper mine in Australia and the Sweetwater and Kintyre uranium assets in the United States and Australia, respectively.
Rio has rejected an all-share takeover offer worth around $170 billion from rival BHP Billiton. (Reporting by Eric Onstad, editing by Will Waterman)
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