Pebble Mine Executive Says Northern Dynasty Can Manage Giant Alaskan Copper Mine Alone, If Necessary

 @natrudy on November 27 2013 7:17 AM

CORRECTION: The article originally read: "A top mine developer behind the ambitious and controversial Alaska Pebble mine, one of the world’s largest proposed copper and gold mines, said Tuesday that his company could build the project without a partner if need be."

It now reads: "A top mine developer behind the ambitious and controversial Alaska Pebble mine, one of the world’s largest proposed copper and gold mines, said Tuesday that his company could obtain permits for the project without a partner if need be." 

Through a spokeswoman, Ron Thiessen clarified that his company could do permitting alone, but would "almost certainly seek a partner or a consortium of partners to construct and operate."

A top mine developer behind the ambitious and controversial Alaska Pebble mine, one of the world’s largest proposed copper and gold mines, said Tuesday that his company could obtain permits for the project without a partner if need be.

Ron Thiessen, head of Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. (TSX:NDM), told International Business Times in a phone interview that his company could file for the required regulatory permits alone, if necessary.

Thiessen said Northern Dynasty could “absolutely” do Pebble alone. Longtime Pebble partner and developer Anglo American plc (LON:AAL) withdrew from the project several weeks ago, seeking to slim down its project pipeline.

“We can permit this mine. There’s no question,” Thiessen told IBTimes. “The heavy lifting is done and we have all of the data.”

Thiessen’s remarks came after a conference late last week where Thiessen revealed further project plans to an audience at the Alaskan Resource Development Council. Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively, who is co-ordinating the mine development, also spoke, stressing the project’s promise as a job creator and an economic engine.

The two executives made their pitch for the project, which has a $6 billion construction tab but a projected $1 billion worth in yearly mining output, to an Alaskan audience.

Their renewed outreach could be seen as an attempt to restore confidence in the mine’s viability, after environmental critics hailed Anglo’s withdrawal as a crucial step in the Pebble project’s demise.

In speech notes given to IBTimes, Thiessen notes for himself: “Working with John Shively and the Pebble team, NDM [Northern Dynasty Minerals] has the financial resources, the expertise and the will to advance Pebble – with or without a major partner.”

Nonetheless, Northern Dynasty will start actively seeking a corporate partner in early 2014, after it finalizes the terms of Anglo American’s exit, said Thiessen.

The launch of a data room this December, showcasing information on the Pebble mine culled from years of study, will be one way Northern Dynasty will try to attract a development partner. Thiessen declined to name potential candidates or companies he’d spoken to, saying it was too early to provide names.

Speech notes indicate, however, a preference for mining companies with experience in the United States and plenty of cash to spend on the project. Notes indicate that Northern Dynasty has already “had very positive preliminary discussion with major mining companies.”

Northern Dynasty will have permitting documentation done and ready to file by the first quarter of 2014, Thiessen said. But it will wait on deciding whether to actually file.

“We’ll decide once that’s all in place, and we will have talked to a few of the senior mining companies. Then we’ll make a decision on whether we should initiate permitting on our own or not,” said Thiessen, who gave no precise timeline on permitting plans.

Critics have challenged developers for years to submit permits, so that the project’s environmental impacts can be measured after they commit to a specific mine project. They have argued that hesitation to submit permit and project plans means that developers can make bogus claims about job creation without committing to specific mine plans.

Critics have also encouraged the Environmental Permit Agency to pre-emptively shut down the project with a veto, which it can do under its authority to regulate wetlands. The agency has declined to comment officially on the veto question so far, though new EPA chief Gina McCarthy visited Alaska to meet with affected Alaskan natives and developers earlier this year.

Relevant factors for permitting, at least for Thiessen, include the finalization of the draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment, which examines the potential impact of mines on the area’s water system.

An EPA spokeswoman told IBTimes in an email: “We are working to finalize the assessment and the goal is still to release it in 2013. That's where our focus is at this time.” She declined to otherwise comment on the Pebble project.

Another Pebble executive, John Shively, said in his speech last week that the project would bring hundreds of jobs to locals and the broader Bristol Bay region. He said Pebble-related work employed 768 Alaskans in 2012. He also predicted that the Lake & Peninsula Borough where the project is sited would gain about $30 million in new yearly tax revenue, many times its current annual borough budget of about $4 million.

Pebble mine critics, however, haven’t relented. Bristol Bay Native Corporation CEO Jason Metrokin, for instance, told reporters last week that the threat of environmental destruction overshadowed any economic gain.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a consistent Pebble critic, said in a blog post last week before the Alaskan industry meeting that an “overwhelming majority” of locals oppose the project, citing past polls.

“Pebble Mine is a disaster waiting to happen — and it's also a bad investment wrought with environmental, social, regulatory, reputational, operational and legal risks.  Nothing said at today's RDC [Resource Development Council] meeting will change that,” wrote NRDC staffer Taryn Kiekow.

Thiessen is confident that the project can co-exist with nearby fishing resources, but didn’t detail plans for an independent scientific review of environmental impacts in the interim. That independent assessment will come after the company files for regulatory permits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will do an independent review of the project’s environmental impacts, he said.  

Eighty percent of local sockeye salmon habitat is not within the two watersheds affected by the Pebble development, according to Thiessen, meaning it’s a “physical impossibility” for those fish populations to be harmed. Critics have pointed out, however, that water contamination or industrial disasters could have far-reaching effects. In Pebble’s defense, Thiessen cited mines near western Canada’s Fraser River watershed as having manageable environmental impacts and as similar to the proposed Pebble plan.

Anglo’s withdrawal makes sense in a broadly weak commodities cycle, said Thiessen. In his speech, he said the metals and mining sector has suffered from $200 billion in impairment or one-time write-off charges in the last several years.

“At the top of the cycle, there’s money for everything,” said Thiessen, speaking of the reasons for Anglo’s withdrawal. “At the bottom of the cycle, difficult choices have to be made.”

According to Thiessen, Anglo would have spent more than $100 million annually for four to six years to obtain Pebble permitting, a cost it didn’t want to bear. Nonetheless, Anglo executives told Thiessen and the public that they were still confident about the project’s merits and viability, he said. 

Alaskan state officials also have a stake in the project’s future, according to Thiessen, because the Pebble mine is a tax revenue-generating state asset that the developers are merely leasing. He met with officials from the governor’s office recently.

“This is a state asset, and the state gets very concerned when a company like Anglo that’s invested $600 million says: We have to withdraw,” said Thiessen. Various Alaskan politicians have come out for and against the project.

Read Thiessen’s speech notes here. They outline Northern Dynasty's recent thinking on Pebble, and incorporate the latest developments.

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