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World markets, local opposition cause investors to be skittish on Pebble mine

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times

As voters in the Lake and Peninsula Borough cast their ballots Tuesday on whether they supported one of the world's largest gold and copper mines in their backyard, traders on Wall Street were sending their own message.

On Tuesday, trading of the stock of Northern Dynasty -- which makes up 50 percent of the Pebble Partnership -- briefly dipped below $5 a share, with the stock rebounding to close at $5.81. After-hours trading then brought it down to $5.68. The price is far lower than earlier this year; Northern Dynasty's stock soared above $20 a share in February. But starting in April, the price started to steadily fall.

Partly because of jittery markets, and partly because of possible problems with permitting the project, both Northern Dynasty’s and partner Anglo American’s stock have been volatile in the past year, say market analysts who have been covering Pebble.  Anglo American owns the other 50 percent of what's known as the Pebble Partnership. Anglo has mines all over the world. Pebble is Northern Dynasty’s principal asset, so its stock is a better indicator of how markets view the project.

Wendell Zerb, a market analyst with Canaccord Genuity in Vancouver, British Columbia, said that local support of a project can impact the way traders view it. But he also pointed out that mining in general is under severe pressure.

“It’s not just Northern Dynasty,” he said. In fact, he pointed out that Northern Dynasty was beating expectations today. It was he said, “bucking the trend.”

Voters in Lake and Peninsula Borough in Southwest Alaska must make sure their ballots are postmarked today, Oct. 4, if they want a voice on the Pebble mining project, one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines, which is being considered in the area.

Residents are voting on a local ballot initiative that would ban large projects, including mining, that would "destroy or degrade" salmon habitat. The mine is near the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which supports one of the world's premier wild salmon runs.

Borough clerk Kate Conley said that all ballots must be in her office by Oct. 14, and will be counted by the 17th.  She declined to comment on how many ballots had already been received. The results of the vote, combined with world events, may have a bigger impact on stock prices than Tuesday's decline.

Zerb said that the current debt crisis taking place in Europe has resulted in an extraordinarily volatile market. The price of copper and gold has taken a big hit in recent months. Gold has dropped from a high of about $2,000 an ounce a few months ago is now at about $1,600 an ounce. The price of copper has also fallen.  

Compounding the problems for Pebble is the possibility that the borough vote will go against the project. The state will likely appeal the ruling on the grounds it is unconstitutional for a borough to decide the fate of a project on state lands that will impact the whole state.

However, if residents vote against Pebble, that will be used as a public relations tool by those who oppose the mine, which isn't good thing for Pebble, said Zerb. Worse, it would help expand the debate beyond Alaska's borders. Recently Robert Redford has been weighing in against mine. So have a group of high-profile chefs and gold dealers. Local fights make investors nervous. Ones that rise to the national level that attract such names as Robert Redford make them all the more so.

Zerb said that any special-interest group with a “reputation” that paints a project negatively does have an “influence on the potential of a project pushing forward.”

He did say, however, that regardless of what happens today or in the near future, the project, backed by Anglo American, is sound and will continue to progress.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com