Augusta Resource Has Cat Scratch Fever

Ocelot. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When it rains, it pours, and for Augusta Resource it's raining cats and dogs. Big cats. A recent sighting of the endangered ocelot has thrown new delays in the path of the miner getting its permits approved for the potentially lucrative but still controversial Rosemont copper mine near Tucson, Ariz. It's easy to imagine the disruption could even upend the hostile takeover HudBay Minerals is waging.

Augusta was anticipating the U.S. Forest Service would issue its final decision by the end of the second quarter, but instead informally learned the Fish & Wildlife Service had notified the agency it may need to renew consultations under the Endangered Species Act because of the ocelot sighting. That was subsequently confirmed after the agency said it was legally required to do so under the act, a move that could set back any decision-making on permits by at least four months or so.

Rosemont hosts an estimated 5.9 billion pounds of copper and 194 million pounds of molybdenum and would be capable of producing 243 million pounds of copper annually, or about 10% of all U.S. output.

Although Augusta puts up a brave front by stating both the biological opinion and final environmental impact statement reviewed the animal's possible presence -- ocelots are elusive creatures and documenting their existence in the region is difficult at best -- and mitigation plans for potential harm have already been included, Fish & Wildlife explained the biological opinion said the matter should be revisited if actual ocelot were found and noted there were substantial differences between the two documents that need more review.

In addition to the ocelot, Fish & Wildlife was also concerned about the Huachuca water umbel, a type of parsley, and various fish, amphibians, and birds, such as the Gila topminnow, the Gila chub, the Chiricahua leopard frog, and the Southwestern willow flycatcher. There may also be doubts about the project's impact on the northern Mexican gartersnake and the yellow-billed cuckoo. It seems there's a regular Noah's ark of fauna and flora that clouds the mine's future.

All of which could cause HudBay Minerals to rethink its C$540 million buyout offer that it only recently extended the deadline for. With so many endangered species affected, it's possible permits would never be forthcoming, obviously making the project that much less attractive. Of course, Fish & Wildlife admits there is a lot of uncertainty in the review's ability to account for all the impacts, but since it's forced to take them into consideration, it may represent an ominous warning.

It's also problematic for Augusta because a judge had ruled the poison pill defense it adopted to ward off HudBay's advances could only stay in effect till mid-July. It's doubtful all the reviews necessary will finish before then and the miner might have had difficulty staying afloat till then.

Fortunately for Augusta, just as it was finding out about the ocelot sighting, it was convincing RK Mine Finance Trust, a British hedge fund, to waive provisions from an earlier loan and advance of $6 million that wasn't supposed to be available until permitting was completed. It also has a financing arrangement with Silver Wheaton , but worth $230 million, in exchange for 100% of life-of-mine silver and gold production from Rosemont, but that isn't available yet either because of the permitting preconditions. 

The money won't get Augusta Resource very far, though perhaps far enough to see this ocelot matter resolved. Whether that's in the miner's favor is very much in doubt and the best investors can likely hope for is HudBay doesn't give up its quest and ultimately is successful in buying them out.

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