By James Regan
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian businessman Clive Palmer on Friday said he plans to build and operate a fleet of four freighters to import nickel ore to a nickel refining plant purchased from BHP Billiton.
The decision by the billionaire, who made much of his fortune buying and selling coastal real estate, comes days after announcing he would build an "unsinkable" version of the Titanic to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the original ocean liner.
The shipping business, called Asia Pacific Shipping Enterprises, will operate out of Singapore and be majority-owned by the Queensland Nickel Group of Companies, according to a statement issued by Palmer.
The fleet will consist of four 64,000-tonne vessels to be built by the state-owned Chinese company, CSC Jinling Shipyard, the same ship builder commissioned to build the new "Titanic", according to the statement.
Palmer was unavailable for immediate comment.
The Australian refinery in Queensland state imports most of its nickel ore feed from the South Pacific French territory of New Caledonia 1,500 km (900 miles) away. It also uses ore from Indonesia and Philippines.
Palmer cut the refinery's annual operating capacity to 35,000 metric tons (38581 tons) from 70,000 metric tons after buying it in 2009 from BHP, which no longer had any use for it after closing its Australian Ravensthorpe nickel mine for economic reasons.
Palmer in 2010 said was so happy to have made A$200 million from the refinery, he sent all 750 employees on a holiday to Fiji. In addition, 50 of his most valued workers at the plant also got a new Mercedes-Benz automobile.
Plans to build the new vessels comes amid a severe global downturn in shipping industry, which has left hundreds of small to mid-sized shipyards in China teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
(Reporting by James Regan)