Scenic overview of beaver ponds in a tributary to Upper Talarik Creek, Pebble Deposit in background, Southwest Alaska
Alamy
Far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern society lies one of America's most hotly contested mining projects. The proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska is thought to hold more than $300 billion in precious metal deposits including copper, gold and molybdenum. That's huge: An operational mine there would boost overall U.S. copper production by 20 percent.

The problem is that those riches are located right at the headwaters of the rivers flowing into the world's most productive salmon fishery.

It's this crossroad between the environment and commerce that has sparked a fierce debate that has caused one of the proposed mine's main investors to back out of the project.

A Mine-Blowing Decision

Bowing to pressure as well as its own financial issues, London-based Anglo American has decided to walk away from the project. With that decision, the company is leaving behind the more than half a billion dollars it had already sunk into the mine's development. Not only that, but it's walking away from a mining deposit of "rare magnitude and quality," according to CEO Mark Cutifani.

It's a big blow to the mine's future, as Anglo American had owned 50 percent of the project and was its main financial backer, with the much smaller Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals owning the other half of the project.

Pressure to not move forward with the mine was strong. Actor Robert Redford, for example, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with a plea to save Bristol Bay. He noted that the proposed open-pit mine would endanger the pristine Alaskan fishery and destroy jobs. The concern is that the project just can't be developed safely.

The thought of an open-pit mine marring that pristine Alaskan tundra has been an emotional hot-button for environmentalists, and they've been pressing it hard. As a result, high-end jewelers like Tiffany (TIF) have signed a pledge to boycott the mine's precious products.

However, for Anglo, the decision really came down to money.

Now It's Someone Else's Problem

In order to get the next phase of the project off the ground, Anglo would have been required to pony up another billion dollars. That's just too big an outlay for a company that has been struggling amid sagging commodity prices. Given the vehemence and reach of the project's detractors, it was easier to walk away from the project.

While Anglo's decision is a clear victory for the mine's opponents, the battle isn't over just yet.

With control over the development of the mine reverting to Northern Dynasty Minerals, it's possible that global mining giant Rio Tinto (RIO), which owns 19 percent of Northern Dynasty, might step forward to fund the mine. Similarly a private equity firm or a foreign buyer could jump in. That is, of course, if the EPA gives its go-ahead, which is no sure thing.

It's quite clear that even if a new financial backer is found, opponents of this project won't go down without a fight.

Even under strict environmental guidelines, the opposition would rather see the vast mineral riches stay underground. That's because those opposed just don't believe that these resources can be extracted without disastrously impacting the environment, despite the best intentions of those involved.

What is clear is that any company that wants to take over the project would do well to have a stellar environmental record (which in the mining industry is hard to come by). Even then, such as company should expect to have to fight an entrenched opposition that has already pushed out one major player, and isn't likely to fold up its tents anytime soon.

Motley Fool contributor Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.


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98 Comments

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dc65

comcast will become a internet provider

October 17 2013 at 9:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ccm989

With new technology they can re-open old mines (that were considered played out) and extract the remaining minerals. The sites are already considered contaminated and might as well extract every last bit out before touching anything that remains pristine. Once an area has been strip mined, recovery is unlikely. Mining companies are not run by environmentalists!

October 04 2013 at 10:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SPQR

The mines would just ship it all to China to build crap for us to buy

October 04 2013 at 12:04 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
SPQR

you can't eat gold but you sure can eat salmon !

October 03 2013 at 11:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
kcampo6453

This is a beautiful sight. One that should be protected, but is this the actual site where mining would be done? The environmentalists have a habit of taking a picture of pristine areas and presenting them as the site of actual work. They did that with ANWAR. Really need to have the full story before the decision is made.

October 03 2013 at 8:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Matt Jam

Metal deposits are everywhere but good fishing holes are hard to find . Easy choice .

October 03 2013 at 6:40 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Jose Ahmed

Too much Greed in the world of corporation to be totaly bypass, Anyway Obama gave the oil company ,the ok to drill in the artic, another catastrophe in the making, this time under ICE.

October 03 2013 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
acebowler300

there are many other places to mine in the states, spend money and re open old mines

October 03 2013 at 4:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ubkwts

the mining co's should be happy that this is off limits as limitation of supply helps support prices. the natural beauty of this area as well as the salmon fishery is much more important. I'd hate to see this area succumb to the same fate as the rain forests in south america. some things are better left off limits. there is a big difference in the physical effect mining has compared to drilling for oil

October 03 2013 at 12:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
John Baldwin

Obamas EPA in action....Employment Prevention Agency!

October 03 2013 at 11:47 AM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to John Baldwin's comment
oaoroho

Wow, what a short sighted and depressing view point of the topic at hand. Even if mioned you can rest assure that a vast majority of the money made will only serve to pad the already bulging wallets of the top 1% anyways. It won't help to improve the well being of American citizens, it will only serve as another huge source of income for the already to wealthy in the first place, but hey, at least a few dozen employees will clear sub 100k salaries and all it will cost is the stability of the environment and a species that has fed the local population for centuries.

October 03 2013 at 6:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply