US Army Corp denies permit for Alaska’s Pebble Mine project
The US Army Corp of Engineers has issued a final decision denying a key water permit for the contentious Pebble Mine in Alaska, putting the project’s future in doubt - though the company behind the project, Northern Dynasty Minerals, intends to appeal the decision.
The mine, one of the world’s largest copper and gold deposits, has been subject to constantly shifting regulations over the last 13 years. Republican President Donald Trump revived the project early in his term after the Obama administration blocked it.
However, current prominent politicians claiming it would harm the state’s billion-dollar salmon industry prompted an about-face from the outgoing Trump administration. Opponents say the project threatens a world-class sockeye salmon fishery, putting more than $1 billion of revenue and over 10,000 jobs at risk.
In a statement, the Army Corps say the Clean Water Act permit was denied because the plan submitted by the Pebble Limited Partnership detailing how it would handle the project’s waste in the ecologically sensitive area did not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.
Colonel Damon Delarosa, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska, says in the statement that the agency has concluded that the proposed project was “contrary to the public interest.”
The Pebble Mine Partnership said it is “dismayed” by the decision and that its Canadian parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, will lodge an appeal within 60 days.
If built, the mine will produce 70 million tons of gold, molybdenum and copper ore a year and create a pit 1,970 feet (600 meters) deep in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.
Pebble Mine Partnership Chief Executive John Shively says in a statement that the company worked closely with the Corps of Engineers to ensure the project included necessary safeguards and slammed the decision as political. “It is very disconcerting to see political influence in this process at the eleventh hour,” he said.
In August, the US government had given developers 90 days to explain how they would offset damage to wetlands and popular fishing sites amid rising opposition to the project by prominent Republicans.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the top Democrat on the Senate natural resources committee, praised the decision, saying he was not convinced the company could protect the surrounding fisheries.
“I understand the important role mining plays in our economy, but the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project did not come near close enough to assuring me this world-class sockeye salmon fishery, which generates $1.5 billion each year and supports 14,000 jobs, would be protected,” he says.
The Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) also welcomed the announcement but warned that permit denial was not the last word.
“A permit denial leaves the door open for future mining in Bristol Bay under more politically favourable circumstances,” the group points out in a statement. It adds that President-elect Joe Biden opposes the project.
The United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which represents 15 area tribal governments, and other mine opponents says they would seek permanent protections for the region.
NRDC senior advocate Taryn Kiekow Heimer explains that the US Environmental Protection Agency has authority under a rarely used section of the Clean Water Act to block development.
President-elect Joe Biden said in August he opposes the mine and as president would “protect Bristol Bay.” Transition team spokesman Jamal Brown says his position remains the same.
Northern Dynasty says the Pebble project would provide a secure supply of strategic minerals, in line with the Biden campaign’s goal to boost domestic production of metals used to make electric vehicles, solar panels and other products crucial to his climate plan.
Shares of the Vancouver-based miner fell about 50 percent in trading after news of the permit denial.
Lithium producers bullish as EV revolution ramps demand
Rising demand for lithium is stoking prices for the electric vehicle battery metal, fueling long-delayed expansions that still may not produce adequate supplies that automakers need to meet aggressive production plans.
Growing industry optimism from higher lithium prices is a change from last year when funding for mines and processing plants dried up during the pandemic.
Albemarle Corp, Livent Corp and other producers are scrambling to make more lithium, but some analysts worry the recent price jump will not spur a big enough expansion to meet a planned wave of new EV models by mid-decade.
Since January, General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co LG Energy Solution and SK Innovation Co, along with other automakers and battery parts manufacturers, have said they will spend billions of dollars on EV plants.
U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed spending $174bn to boost EV sales and infrastructure. The European Union has similar plans, part of a rush to catch up with global EV leader China.
Those moves have helped an index of lithium prices jump 59 percent since April 2020, according to data from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a commodity pricing provider.
The rising demand “reflects what feels like a real and fundamental turning point in our industry,” said Paul Graves, chief executive of Livent Corp, which supplies Tesla Inc. On Monday, it said it would more than double its annual lithium production to 115,000 tonnes.
Graves warned, though, that “it will be a challenge for the lithium industry to produce sufficient qualified material in the near and medium term.”
Albemarle, the world’s largest lithium producer, aims to double its production capacity to 175,000 tonnes by the end of the year when two construction projects are complete. Albemarle's Q1 profit beat expectations thanks to rising lithium prices. Chile’s SQM, the No. 2 producer, said its goal to expand production of lithium carbonate by 71 percent to 120,000 tonnes should be complete by December.
Australia’s Orocobre is paying $1.4 billion for smaller rival Galaxy Resources, a strategy designed to boost scale and help it grow faster in regions closer to customers.
“The next few years are going to be critical in terms of whether there’s enough available lithium supply, and that’s why you’re starting to see commodity prices start to ramp,” said Chris Berry, an independent lithium industry consultant.
The price gains helped Albemarle and other major producers, including China’s Ganfeng Lithium Co and SQM, post big gains in first-quarter profit and boost forecasts for the year.
Even China’s Tianqi Lithium Corp, saddled with debt due to years of low lithium prices, signaled that recovering demand should help it swing to a profit this year.
Forecasts call for demand for the white metals to surge from about 320,000 tonnes annually last year to more than 1 million tonnes annually by 2025, when many automakers plan to launch new EV fleets, according to Benchmark.
Still, demand is expected to outstrip supply in 2025 by more than 200,000 tonnes, so lithium prices may need to rise to encourage producers to build more mines. That could boost the prices consumers pay for EVs. “Companies across the lithium-ion supply chain are in the best position they’ve been in for the last 5 years,” said Pedro Palandrani of the Global X Lithium & Battery Technology ETF , which has doubled in value in the past year.