Commentary: Pebble can afford fancy lobbyists but not a feasibility study

By Bob Shavelson
For The Cordova Times

Talk is cheap, but numbers don’t lie.

Northern Dynasty Minerals — the junior Canadian mining interest behind the proposed Pebble mine — did its damnedest to hype its stock in the lead-up to the much-anticipated release of its Environmental Impact Statement earlier this month. 

And while it came as no surprise the Army Corps rubber-stamped a bogus EIS to help push Pebble through the federal permitting process, the markets still don’t see Pebble as a serious project.

In fact, while NAK’s stock price crept up in the days preceding the EIS, it’s since crashed back down.

Here’s what one analyst had to say: “With so many hurdles still in front of it and a timeline that might get Pebble up and running toward the end of this decade, it’s really hard to see this as anything more than the most speculative of stocks. Anyone looking for a stock that’s more than just a lottery ticket should look elsewhere.” 

Don’t forget, five major mining companies lost hundreds of millions of dollars taking a hard look at Pebble, and they all walked away.  And while there are lots of reasons investors aren’t buying Pebble’s hype — aside from the fact a strong majority of Alaskans don’t want it — one problem stands out: the Pebble people have refused to do a feasibility study to show its mine will turn a profit.

Richard Borden is a mining expert who spent two decades calculating the costs needed to build and operate large mines around the world. He looked at Pebble’s 20-year mine plan, and concluded it would likely result in “financial losses in the billions of dollars.” 

Economic feasibility studies are standard practice in the mining industry. Northern Dynasty has never operated a mine, so we’d expect the Pebble people to be anxious to show investors their project has legs. 

What better way to attract [Pebble] investors than showing they’ve got a really favorable project on their hands?” Borden said

So, what’s stopping Pebble from conducting an economic analysis?

According to Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole, the company hasn’t been able to complete an economic feasibility study due to resource limitations. Pebble CEO Tom Collier said the same thing: Pebble cannot afford to do a formal economic feasibility study.

The irony of course is that according to federal disclosure reports, Pebble has spent over $15 million on fancy lobbyists since 2007 to grease the skids for its project to slide through the federal permitting process – including over $8.6 since the Trump and Dunleavy Administrations took office.

So, here’s the question: how can Pebble afford to pay expensive insiders to push its project through the Washington swamp, but it can’t pay for a basic study showing investors the Pebble mine is legitimate?

It goes without saying — Pebble has a serious credibility problem. And based on the numbers we’re seeing in the financial markets, they’re not fooling anyone.

Bob Shavelson is the advocate director for Cook Inletkeeper in Homer, Alaska.