Business/Economy

Unnamed investor offers up to $60 million for Alaska’s Pebble mine project

Pebble Mine in Alaska

An unnamed investor has agreed to inject up to $60 million into the embattled Pebble copper and gold project in Southwest Alaska, an infusion the owner hopes will allow it to reverse major federal permitting actions against the project.

Pebble owner Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, B.C., is not naming the investor, a private asset management company, in part because it is not required to, said Mike Westerlund, vice president of investor relations for Northern Dynasty. It announced the new investment July 27.

Northern Dynasty is also declining to name the investor out of concern that project opponents will publicly attack the company in an attempt to discourage its investment, he said. The investor can reveal its name if it chooses, Westerlund said.

“We are trying to create economic opportunities and jobs, and these funds will help us do that,” he said.

The Pebble mineral deposit is located about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, near headwaters that support the valuable Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Pebble opponents have said pollution from the mine will harm what is the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, which is enjoying record runs again this summer. Northern Dynasty argues it can safely develop the project.

[Bristol Bay commercial sockeye salmon catch shatters record]

The money will help Pebble “advance the project through permitting, and challenge decisions by agencies that are unfairly trying to block the project,” Westerlund said. Before the new investment was announced, Northern Dynasty reported holding cash assets of $14 million.

In 2020, under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the developer’s 20-year permit application for the mine. Northern Dynasty is appealing that decision.

The Environmental Protection Agency this year also issued a proposal that would block project plans if it is approved. That proposal is undergoing a public comment period through early September.

The public radio station in the Bristol Bay region, KDLG, reported the new investment earlier this week.

Groups opposed to Pebble said the investment is a sign that the EPA needs to finalize its proposal and stop the project.

“We’d like the EPA to finish this off, so Bristol Bay doesn’t face the uncertainty of Pebble and the region can go back to focusing on its life and culture and not worrying about this threat,” said Molly Dischner, communications director with United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

The investor has made an initial $12 million payment to receive a royalty share of gold production and silver production, Northern Dynasty Minerals said in its announcement.

The investor can make four additional $12 million payments in the next two years, to significantly boost its royalty share, to up to 10% of the payable gold production and up to 30% of the payable silver production, the company said.

“It has become clear to us that to develop a world-class mineral deposit like Pebble requires time, patience and sufficient liquidity to successfully navigate the established legal process and continue ongoing efforts to work with the people in the region,” said Ron Thiessen, Northern Dynasty president, in the company’s July statement.

“As I have said many times before, a large amount of copper is critical for the generation and transmission of electricity, and we believe the world needs to develop the few world-class copper assets that have been discovered in order to have any chance of meeting its green energy goals,” he said.

Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the royalty sharing deal was an “act of desperation,” suggesting that Pebble is trying to find new sources of money with its stock price low and after major mining companies backed away from the project in previous years.

“It’s not that much money really,” Reynolds said of the investment. “It’s just enough money to keep the process going.”

He said if conservation groups knew who the investor was, they’d make sure the company understands the full risks, including the Bristol Bay region’s strong opposition to the project.

An economic assessment of Pebble last year found it could produce $1.7 billion annually over 20 years, said Bob Loeffler, a former director of the Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water, now a research professor of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.

The value of the mine could be much more than that if its life can be extended, which would require a new regulatory process, Northern Dynasty officials have said.

The investment means someone out there, despite the major regulatory hurdles against the project, believes Pebble still has a “non-zero chance” of being permitted someday, Loeffler said.

“It’s got long odds and high rewards,” he said. “How you judge the odds is in the eye of the beholder.”



Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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