Pebble Mine: A $300 Billion Precious Metal Motherlode Nobody Wants to Dig Up

Scenic overview of beaver ponds in a tributary to Upper Talarik Creek, Pebble Deposit in background, Southwest Alaska

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-basedAnglo 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.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%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.

Originally published