Pebble revived: Owner plans to file for permits in 2017

  • Ron Thiessen, president and CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., addresses the lunch crowd in Anchorage during the 2013 Alaska Resources Conference, sponsored by the Resource Development Council. Thiessen's company has new life under President Donald Trump and has told investors it intends to file for permits in 2017. (Photo/Mark Thiessen/AP)

Alaskans are used to seeing apocalyptic images about the Pebble mine.

TV ads opposing the large copper-gold prospect near Iliamna cast images of toxic sludge cascading down mountain valleys into Bristol Bay, killing all the salmon.

Is the hype shoe now on the other foot?

It’s jarring, but sponsored-content pitches are now showing up on mainstream Internet sites touting Pebble, posted not by owner Northern Dynasty but by people touting Pebble’s stock.

The headline blares: “Is this tiny gold miner about to soar? Will Trump open development of the world’s biggest gold mine … right here in America?”

With a new friend in Washington — meaning President Donald Trump — Pebble’s ultimate development is a no-brainer, the story goes.

“I want to share with you one of the most extraordinary opportunities I've seen in my career … You could potentially make up to 1,000% over the next year with a small company that owns the entire thing,” stock analyst Porter Stansberry writes.

Stansberry is promoting his market-research newsletter, he acknowledges.

“This mine, by the way, is in Alaska,” he says, “and there's estimated to be more than 107 million ounces of gold. There's so much gold here that if it is all mined, it will equal nearly 2 percent of all the gold that has ever been mined throughout all of history ... in the entire world.”

Stansberry may be stretching things but he is not far off. According to a Northern Dynasty investor presentation from Jan. 9, the company intends to apply for its Clean Water Act Section 404 permit in 2017 and initiate the National Environmental Policy Act process that would have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the lead federal agency.

Things aren’t that simple, of course. Even if Trump rolls over the U.S. Clean Water Act and agencies that administer it, mainly the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pebble must still deal with state of Alaska mining regulations, which are stringent, and an ambivalence toward the project by Gov. Bill Walker, who said he opposed the project during his run for office in 2014.

All that said, it is clear that Trump’s election has given the project new life. An effort by the EPA under former President Barack Obama to shut the project down, by preempting permits for large mines in Bristol Bay, is likely to be scuttled by new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

Northern Dynasty has already succeeded in stopping the preemptive veto effort with a federal court injunction, and that case is now in mediation.

Pebble must also raise money, which it is now doing. As long as the EPA preemption was hanging over it, money was hard to raise. Since Trump’s election, however, the company stock price has tripled to near a four-year high earlier this month.

Northern Dynasty’s major partner, Anglo American, pulled out of the project in late 2013 after spending more than $550 million on exploration and development. Rio Tinto also divested its 19 percent share in the project. A major mining company will have to join the project, though, as Northern Dynasty lacks the staff and funding to construct the project.

Northern Dynasty will also have to deal with inevitable litigation from mining opponents.

“Regardless of federal politics, the people of Bristol Bay remain steadfast in our dedication to protecting Bristol Bay and in opposition to mines like Pebble that threaten our traditional way of life,” said United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley in a Jan. 24 statement. “We are anticipating welcoming home over 40 million salmon in 2017 and will continue the fight to protect our watershed as we have for countless generations.”

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole couldn’t comment because of the pending financing but he had said previously that a lot of work is needed to prepare the permits.

“We do have additional drilling, environmental and engineering before permitting can be completed. There is also work required for finalizing the permit applications,” Heatwole said in a past interview.

Northern Dynasty CEO Ronald Thiessen told Bloomberg News Jan. 23 that $150 million will be needed over four years to do permitting. About $750 million has been invested to date at Pebble including $150 million in environmental studies, Thiessen said in a presentation to investors.

Pebble’s measured and indicated, and inferred, resources of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver make it one of the largest undeveloped mineral prospects in the world, Thiessen said.

After the EPA action is resolved, which Thiessen expects in April, it will take three to four years to obtain federal and state permits, according to the Northern Dynasty investor presentation with first production as early as 2024.

Once applications are filed six months will be needed for “scoping” for the environmental impact statement, or EIS; one to one-and-a-half years for preparing the draft EIS; six months to one year for public comments on the DEIS; one year to a final EIS and record of decision, or ROD, by the lead federal agency, according to a Northern Dynasty presentation made to investors.

The ROD is the final major step before the main federal permit, a corps Section 404 authorization, is issued.

That timeline may be optimistic, however, given EIS schedules typical for large, complex mining projects.

For example, the large Donlin Gold project on the Kuskokwim River is on a five-year schedule with its EIS, and there are not the kind of complications there that are present at Pebble.

However, Pebble will also have to get its state permits and opponents to the mine will likely shift their focus from soliciting support within the EPA to the state Legislature and state administration.

Walker’s appetite for taking on fierce opposition to the mine from residents in the Bristol Bay region is uncertain given his preoccupation with a large state budget deficit and his promotion of a state-led natural gas pipeline project.

In December the state Department of Natural Resources put a brake on issuing new surface access permits to Pebble Partnership for lands at the mine site.

The existing permits expired at the end of 2016 but the company was granted a 90-day extension while the department considers a slug of adverse public comments to new miscellaneous land use permits requested by Pebble.

Heatwole said the land-use permits merely authorize access to the site for monitoring. Any new drilling, which will be needed for permit applications, will require amendments to those permits, he said.

However, if Pebble is built it would stimulate the state’s economy with about 3,000 new jobs during construction and $1 billion in annual operating expenses, about equal to one of the major North Slope oilfield operators, Thiessen told investors.

The mine would also boost the Bristol Bay economy, and would increase the tax base of the Lake and Peninsula Borough by 600 percent over 2013 levels according to the Northern Dynasty presentation.

Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].


01/25/2017 - 10:46am