When the president of the sole remaining partner in the beleaguered Pebble Limited Partnership launched into a sales pitch on Thursday for the huge and controversial copper mine planned for southwestern Alaska's Bristol Bay region, he acknowledged the "elephant in the room."
Everyone wants to know what will happen to the project now that mining giant Anglo American has dropped out of the partnership, said Ron Thiessen, president and chief executive of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the Vancouver-based junior company still pushing the Pebble Mine.
"It's the day after Anglo. What's next?" Thiessen, a keynote speaker at the Resource Development Council's annual conference in Anchorage, said in his speech.
Northern Dynasty will keep pushing for the mine, he assured the audience. "We have the resources and the expertise and the will to advance Pebble or without a partner and that is what we intend and will do," he said.
Nonetheless, Thiessen said in the same speech, Northern Dynasty -- and the state of Alaska -- "needs another major partner" to come to invest in Pebble. His company's top priority in the next few months will be to attract another big company to make the needed investments, he said.
"Northern Dynasty is confident that we can secure another major investor to construct and operate a world-class mine at Pebble," Thiessen said.
Not next, Thiessen said, is any filing of a permit application or formal mine plan. That will have to wait until a new partner joins the venture, he said.
Earlier this year, the Anglo-Northern Dynasty-owned Pebble partnership had said it would submit permit applications by the end of 2013 -- an event, Pebble supporters said, that would present a concrete mining plan for skeptics to analyze and judge.
Now, with Anglo out, the environmental and design work needed for a permit application won't be completed until early 2014, Thiessen said.
But there is no target date for an application, he said. Applying for a permit will have to wait until a new partner joins the venture, he said in an interview after the speech.
Pebble's developers have been criticized for failing to follow through on announced intentions to submit permit applications and formal documentations of the mine plans.
Even Sen. Lisa Murkowski, generally supportive of the partnership's efforts, sent a letter to the company in June criticizing the failure to release an official mining plan after assuring Alaskans for nearly a decade that such a filing was imminent.
Thursday's news that the end-of-2013 target for permit applications will be missed comes as no surprise, said Tim Bristol, Alaska program director of Trout Unlimited, one of the numerous environmental and fishing groups opposing the mine.
"They're said for the last several years that they're months away from putting in a permit application," Bristol said. The assurances that the Pebble Mine is on the cusp of permit application "falls into the same category of promises that they have no ability or no intention of keeping," he said.
Bristol also said he doubts Pebble will be able to attract a new partner to promote one of the world's biggest open-pit mines upstream from one of the biggest commercial fisheries. "I think it just is a tough sell for them," he said.
Thiessen, however, asked for more patience, though he acknowledged that Alaskans are getting impatient about a permit application.
"There's so many people pushing on them for support. And what is there to support and, really, what is there to fight against? We haven't put anything solid in their hands to say, `Take a look at this,' and yet the other side has put the Hoover Dam and all the nightmares in front of them. What I tell people is, just calm down," he said in the interview. "Just don't even make up your mind until at least the regulators have had a look at it."
In his speech, Thiessen blasted Pebble's opponents for creating what he characterized as a threat to Alaska's entire resource-based economy.
The Pebble deposit is "a uniquely valuable asset" and "something that every major mining company covets. So if there's a challenge in attracting investment to Pebble, I don't believe it's the asset but rather the climate around the mineral resources development in the state," he said. "What does this say about Alaska's investment climate if a project of Pebble's scale and value and global importance is not attractive to major investors?"