by Natalie Obiko Pearson
January 18, 2017, 8:01 PM AKST January 19, 2017, 5:44 AM AKST
There’s one thing Donald Trump is already making great again: a small Canadian explorer with rights to one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper and gold deposits.
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. has more than tripled since the U.S. election to approach a four-year high this week amid speculation the incoming administration will allow the explorer’s long-stalled Pebble project in Alaska to move ahead. Last week, the Vancouver-based company drummed up C$43 million ($32.4 million) in a secondary share offering to investors eager for a stake in a resource it estimates at more than 6 billiontons of ore.
That’s quite a revival for Northern Dynasty, whose sole project had appeared all but dead only a year ago. After peaking at a market value of almost $2 billion in 2011, the company’s luck turned -- it was abandoned by Anglo American Plc and Rio Tinto Group amid a commodity rout, and it was obstructed by the Environmental Protection Agency after the project had already burned through more than $550 million. Northern Dynasty’s latest quarterly results showed its cash holdings had dwindled to less than C$8 million.
“On Friday, Trump gets inaugurated -- that’s a good thing,” said John Tumazos, a Holmdel, New Jersey-based independent mining analyst, who owns Northern Dynasty shares and believes the EPA under Trump will reverse a 2014 move to prevent Pebble from obtaining a permit. Nomination hearings began Wednesday for Trump’s pick to head the agency, Scott Pruitt, a climate-change skeptic who has called for “regulatory rollback.” That can’t happen soon enough for Northern Dynasty.
The company first began exploring the Pebble site in 2001 and discovered a deposit stunning in its scale. Each component on its own -- measured, indicated and inferred resources of 81.5 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 514 million ounces of silver -- would be considered a major asset. Depending on the project’s plan, mining Pebble for 80 years would deplete only 55 percent of its known resources, Northern Dynasty Chief Executive Ronald Thiessen told investors in a speech last March. Thiessen declined to be interviewed, citing a packed schedule of investor meetings in Montreal, Toronto and New York.
In 2007, Thiessen took then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to London to help woo BHP Billiton Ltd., Rio Tinto and Anglo American to invest, according to last year’s speech. The latter two bit -- Anglo American became a partner in the project, and Rio Tinto acquired a stake in Northern Dynasty.
But in 2013, Anglo American walked away after sinking more than $500 million into the project, and Rio Tinto several months later gifted its 19.1 percent stake in Northern Dynasty to local charities, including one opposed to the project.
100 Rolled Into One
“This is like 100 junior gold miners rolled into one,” said Tumazos, who retains about 120,000 Northern Dynasty shares after selling a small holding recently to recoup his initial outlay. “I think it’s the most significant mining project in the world.”
Northern Dynasty shares were unchanged at C$3.34 Thursday at 9:34 a.m. in Toronto, giving it a market value of C$894.4 million and making the stake of Thiessen, a major shareholder, worth about $10.8 million. The company hasn’t reported revenue since it was listed in the U.S. in 2004.
The Pebble site, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage, is nestled among the rolling tundra and pristine waters of Bristol Bay -- home to the one of the world’s largest runs of sockeye salmon. That’s made it a lightening rod for opposition by environmentalists, indigenous groups, as well as commercial and sport-fishing industries. Tiffany & Co. is among retailers that have pledged not to source gold from the region. President Barack Obama declared Bristol Bay permanently off limits to oil and gas drilling and toured the region in 2015 in an effort to cement his environmental legacy.
“Bristol Bay is remarkable as one of the last places on Earth with such bountiful and sustainable harvests of wild salmon,” the EPA said in July 2014, estimating that Pebble’s mine pit, tailings and waste rock would cover an area larger than Manhattan. It proposed restrictions before the project submitted a development application -- a rare regulatory maneuver obstructing Pebble’s ability to seek a permit.
Thiessen didn’t respond to questions about how Pebble’s prospects will change under the incoming administration, but said in an e-mail that the company’s successful fundraising last week “bodes well” for the industry.
At his Senate nomination hearing Wednesday, Pruitt signaled the U.S. will adopt a new approach to environmental protection.
“I think the people in this country are really hungry for some change -- and with change comes an opportunity for growth,” he said at the hearing. “In this nation we can grow our economy, harvest the resources that God has blessed us with, while also being good stewards of the air, land and water.”
It’s clear Northern Dynasty expects the self-described opponent of the “EPA’s activist agenda” may ease the way ahead. A company investor presentation this month -- touting “a return to normal permitting” -- anticipates a resolution with the EPA, finding a new partner, and formally advancing the project into the permitting process this year.
That timeline also sets commercial production to begin in 2024 -- still a big if, cautions Caesar Bryan, portfolio manager of GAMCO Investors Inc.’s Gabelli Gold Fund, which owns Northern Dynasty shares.
“The Pebble project has caught the imagination of people who don’t want it developed -- environmentalists have taken it on as something to unite over,” Bryan said by phone. “The company will still have to deal with that apart from the technical aspects of the project.”
There’s also no guarantee it’ll get a permit, and Northern Dynasty lacks the money and expertise to develop the mine on its own, he said.
“I have to give them credit for being so dogged when it looked like no progress would ever be made,” Bryan said. “But an enhanced skill set will be required if and when it gets to the next step.”