Bruce Switzer: Pebble project has run its course; there's no workable mine plan

I was managing environmental affairs at Cominco (now Teck) when I discovered Cominco owned Pebble. I was informed, upon inquiry, that Pebble was at best marginally economic because of low grade and other factors, and physically challenging because of water management. A no-go, so forget about it. Later, in 2002, I learned a shell company called Northern Dynasty (ND) had acquired Pebble so I checked out their parent company, Hunter Dickinson, a Vancouver "junior" mining company which was, according to their web page, not in the business of planning or building mines. Rather, they were in the business of discovering ore bodies and bringing them along to the "permitting stage" before selling them, none of which had ever resulted in a producing mine. This is a business model called "pump and dump" for which the Vancouver stock scene is infamous and once named by Forbes as the "scam capital of the world." Shortly after acquisition of Pebble, Northern Dynasty "discovers" a huge copper/gold mine that Cominco had missed, notwithstanding that Cominco was the most experienced northern miner in the world. Classic pump and dump. I forgot it again.

Pebble got my renewed attention when Anglo American bought in soon followed by Mitsubishi and Rio Tinto. They formed the Pebble Limited Partnership and began furiously blowing Anglo's money. Maybe Cominco was wrong, I thought.

According to ND and PLP, Pebble is the world's biggest gold/copper mine ever. Although size and scope fluctuate depending on whose promotion you are reading, still, it's big. Commodity prices are high and the Chinese market is a short hop away. The Parnell Administration and the Department of Natural Resources are all for it and the regulatory process, contrary to industry claims, is a slam dunk. All this not withstanding, Mitsubishi backed out, then Anglo bailed (after spending $500+ million and forfeiting another $300 million), then Rio walked. Consider also that Cominco sold Pebble without retaining back-in rights and ND has been trying to sell their position in Pebble at least since 2011.

So what's up? Every year since 2008 PLP has promised permit applications and a mine plan next year. Six years later and permits are still coming next year. This reminds me of the tattered sign I once saw in a bar "Free Beer --Tomorrow." The procrastination has nothing whatsoever to do with environmental regulations or opposition. Anglo and Rio did not abandon this project because of petitions from environmental organizations or fear of the EPA. In fact, the recent opposition to Pebble is being used politically and in legislative attempts to weaken regulations and trash the EPA. No, Mitsubishi, Anglo, and Rio discovered what Cominco knew--there is no mine there, at least not without massive government subsidy.

Confirmation of this is found in the Wardrop report, a preliminary mine plan commissioned by Northern Dynasty. Upon its 2011 release PLP did everything but deny its existence. But it is a mine plan.

Buried in its 579 pages the source of power is discussed. Pebble needs a natural gas pipeline from the west side of the Kenai Peninsula across Cook Inlet, tapped for the port, then on to the mine. PLP counts on the State for this using the argument "The Pebble project may also serve as a catalyst and anchor customer for new natural gas production and infrastructure development in the State of Alaska." They also need help with the port. I would wager they have negotiated this with the administration, but a multi-billion dollar public subsidy for Pebble caused even the Parnell Administration to blanch.

The four "senior" companies that looked at Pebble walked away because they couldn't come up with a workable mine plan. So, I've come full circle to where I started in 2002. Northern Dynasty shares started around fifty cents and they've peaked twice, once over $15 and once over $20. Executives and directors and other insiders made tons of money and they got to play with $800 million from Anglo. So, guys, let's kill this thing and call it a day. Time to dump it. You've had a nice pump.

Bruce Switzer is a mining consultant and has served as an advisor to groups opposed to the Pebble mine.