Pebble Mine: Northern Dynasty Minerals on the Edge

Company’s annual meeting is dominated by more promises to embattled shareholders, while Bristol Bay coalition vows opposition “Will Never Relent”
NRDC’s Joel Reynolds and Earthworks’ Bonnie Gestring, outside Northern Dynasty Minerals shareholder meeting in Vancouver

Company’s annual meeting is dominated by more promises to embattled shareholders, while Bristol Bay coalition vows opposition “Will Never Relent”

When companies fail over a prolonged period, the usual destination is bankruptcy. In the case of Northern Dynasty Minerals—the last remaining partner in the failed partnership behind the universally condemned Pebble Mine—that may be the next stop. But in the face of unrelenting opposition at all levels, a steady stream of fleeing mining partners and investors, and a precipitous decline in share value since February 2011, Northern Dynasty shows no signs of moving on.

One reason, presumably, is that, with no other assets than the reckless Pebble prospect, the company has nowhere else to go. Another possibility is that, no matter how badly the company is doing, its leadership is doing very well indeed.

Last week, when Earthworks colleague Bonnie Gestring and I attended Northern Dynasty’s annual general meeting in Vancouver and met with the company’s CEO Ron Thiessen, this second possibility came into sharper focus. In contrast to the impressive shareholder gatherings of major former mining partners like Rio Tinto and Anglo American that abandoned the Pebble Mine years ago, Northern Dynasty’s meeting was a small, low-key affair, convened around a table in an office conference room—led by Northern Dynasty’s board chair Robert Dickinson and comprising a small number of retail shareholders, some company employees and consultants, and the immaculately dressed star of their show—the salesman in chief—CEO Thiessen.

And a quintessential salesman he is. Of course, in his position, he would have to be—as CEO of a company that over the past decade, under his leadership, has suffered one of the most spectacular meltdowns in the history of modern mining.

According to Thiessen, past troubles—including the departure of three of the largest mining companies in the world and, just last month, the loss of another potential partner—were attributable to falling commodities prices and the “nightmare” of EPA involvement under “Obama’s activist administration.” With these impediments now a thing of the past, he says, the way forward is essentially clear, once a permit has been secured, for development of “one of the most prolific metal depositions in the world.”

CEO Ron Thiessen and Board Chair Robert Dickinson at Northern Dynasty Minerals Annual General Meeting
Credit: Bonnie Gestring

The bulk of the meeting consisted of Northern Dynasty’s latest narrative for imminent success—a slideshow called “A Fresh Start” that describes the status of and next steps in developing the Pebble Mine and, with it, the certain enrichment of Northern Dynasty’s embattled shareholders. Without going into details of the presentation itself (which can be accessed on Northern Dynasty’s website), suffice it to say that Thiessen concedes virtually nothing on any point of contention or fact, asserting confidently, for example, things like:

  • the coalition of organizations opposed to Pebble in the Bristol Bay region is in reality “only one group”—the Bristol Bay Native Corporation,
  • if asked the right question, “a majority of Alaskans want to see Pebble apply for a permit,”
  • the three-year, twice-peer reviewed EPA scientific risk assessment of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay Watershed “wasn’t a scientific process,”
  • the value of the Bristol Bay fishery will “actually be enhanced” by development of the Pebble Mine,
  • the only real question is “can it get a permit?”

As to that question, having spent $850 million so far on the project, Thiessen feels confident that Northern Dynasty is “well underway.”

His presentation was followed by Q and A, with questions asked in deferential, even obsequious terms that, while betraying an undercurrent of understandable anxiety and frustration about the company’s continuing financial troubles, would in no way offend its CEO. In response, Thiessen’s assurances never waned, although he repeatedly declined to “publish the strategies” for overcoming barriers because “our project has enemies.” In his view, asserted without any supporting details, there is plenty of money to be had, “depending on the deal,” and even past partners or investors (i.e., Mitsubishi, Anglo American, Rio Tinto, and First Quantum Minerals) may be waiting in the wings for the right moment to re-enter the carnage.

NRDC’s Reynolds and Earthworks’ Gestring, with Vancouver Sun full-page ad to Northern Dynasty shareholders

One questioner noted his concern in seeing in the morning’s Vancouver Sun an entire page communicating in no uncertain terms to Northern Dynasty and its shareholders the continuing resolve of the people of Bristol Bay—“NO MEANS NO: WE WILL NEVER RELENT IN OUR FIGHT AGAINST THE PEBBLE MINE.” To this, Thiessen replied dismissively: “A paid ad, not news,” and “they clearly have the money.” Unspoken but perhaps more to the point of the question, the full-page ad explicitly belied Thiessen’s confidence that Northern Dynasty has begun to, and will ultimately, win the hearts and minds of the people who live there.

By the end of the meeting, no significant new information had been disclosed to this gathering of shareholders, and in fact no internal confidences were expected. Nor was it clear why anyone present, after years of Northern Dynasty’s steady financial fall, would continue to believe the time-worn assurances of the company’s leadership that now—finally—success is on the horizon. But if there were skeptics in the room, they kept their doubts to themselves, perhaps because whatever chance they have of reversing their financial misfortune—and cashing in on the desperate gamble that is the Pebble Mine—rests squarely on the shoulders of the very purveyor of those assurances.

Notably, it was alluded to more than once that both Thiessen and Board Chair Dickinson are themselves major Northern Dynasty shareholders—that indeed “both Bob and I have more shares than originally,” reflecting their personal common cause with the other shareholders in the room. While there is some truth in this, it seems equally clear that if Thiessen and Dickinson are in the same “financial boat” as other Northern Dynasty shareholders, they are most definitely the ones sitting in the first-class cabin:

According to the Statement of Executive Compensation in Northern Dynasty’s Management Information Circular (May 18, 2018), Thiessen’s total compensation in 2017 as CEO was CAN $2,118,486, while for sitting on the board of this failing company Dickinson was compensated CAN $339,570. (Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier, who did not attend this meeting, received total compensation in 2017 of CAN $2,357,744.)

However long it takes for Northern Dynasty to call it quits—however many more years of operation in the red lie ahead—the company’s leadership will continue to do just fine, reaping the personal financial benefits of annual compensation packages that seem completely unmoored from accountability for their collective failure to deliver on promises that Northern Dynasty shareholders have been fed for years.     

To be clear, this isn’t personal. Bonnie and I were treated courteously by everyone at the meeting, and we responded in kind. That said, it is nonsense to assert, as Thiessen does, that the Pebble Mine is about whether, as a society, “we want to go back to living in grass huts.” The battle against Pebble is about protecting the greatest wild salmon fishery on Earth—and the communities and families that depend on it—from a small Canadian company that is willing to put all that at risk. It’s about stopping this reckless mining scheme once and for all—no matter how long it takes, no matter how much it costs, no matter how comfortable our current political leadership in Washington may be in elevating the financial interests of that small Canadian company over the determined opposition of Alaskans.

The people of Bristol Bay will never relent in their battle against the Pebble Mine, and NRDC is committed to help them in that fight.

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