Our investment firm is in the business of recognizing, understanding and pricing risk. It's a job that often demands difficult judgment calls, but this one is a no-brainer: Pebble Mine is a bad bet. That's one reason why the governor of Alaska recently called for a hold on mine permitting.
Today's smart investors don't just look at the bottom line. We look for opportunities to promote good corporate behavior through long-term investment strategies that consider social and environmental well-being: in other words, sustainable economic growth that will deliver returns over the long term.
The Pebble Mine, a vast gold and copper mine proposed in the headwaters of southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay, is the type of project that runs counter to sustainable economic growth. The mine jeopardizes a vast renewable resource –one that provides 14,000 jobs and an abundant source of healthy seafood that helps feed the world.
Ecosystem degradation is of serious concern to investors. That is why my company, along with 28 other investors, has taken a public position against the Pebble Mine.
Alaska's Bristol Bay is one of the great ecological resources of the world. It is the site of the largest remaining run of wild sockeye salmon, and it produces roughly half of the world's commercial supply of wild sockeye. While many global fisheries are in serious trouble, the Bristol Bay fishery generated a nearly record-setting return of 62 million wild salmon in 2018.
The great risk posed by this mine is not only reflected in science and the views of the people of Bristol Bay, but by the market as well. Northern Dynasty, the small Canadian company behind the project, has been promising the sun and moon with this project. Yet four major mining companies have walked away from the Pebble project, including some of the world's largest mining companies. Mitsubishi withdrew in 2011. Anglo American pulled out in 2013 after spending more than $540 million and citing a desire to focus on projects with the "highest value and lowest risks." Rio Tinto walked away in 2014, donating all of its shares to two Alaskan charitable foundations. First Quantum left in May 2018 after sinking nearly $40 million into the project.
This is an unprecedented response that speaks volumes about the risks associated with this project. It also leaves Northern Dynasty with a bleak financial outlook. Its 2018 quarterly financial statement claims that the securities of Northern Dynasty are "highly speculative," and that it needs substantial additional capital, but it has no arrangements in place for this funding.
Investor firms are increasingly looking at social opposition as a major consideration for large mining projects, and Pebble fares poorly on that count as well. The governor of Alaska, Bristol Bay Native tribes and corporations, commercial fishing companies, restaurants, supermarkets, churches, outfitters and jewelers have all declared their opposition to the mine. They recognize that the economic engine for the region is the salmon fishery, and the science has repeatedly shown Pebble will have unacceptable consequences for salmon.
As importantly, Pebble has failed to provide a prefeasibility study to demonstrate that its current mine proposal is economically viable. These studies, normally published before the permit application, provide data to support the company's claims that the mine will be profitable. Every other large mine in Alaska has done so at this point in the permitting process, but not Pebble.
The state of Alaska is right in calling for a hold on permitting until the company demonstrates that Pebble is feasible. The federal government should not be wasting public resources on a lemon, and an incredibly destructive lemon at that. Responsible resource development is critical to all economic, environmental and cultural stakeholders. The sound investment is in protecting Bristol Bay's incomparable ecological resources.
Jonas Kron is a senior vice president at Trillium Asset Management, an investment firm that focuses on sustainable and responsible investing.
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