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Investing in Pebble mine: The Shively Spreadsheet Challenge

Scott Coughlin

On behalf of my fellow Bristol Bay fishermen, past and present, I would like to issue a friendly challenge to the Pebble Limited Partnership, and specifically its Chief Executive Officer, John Shively. But first, let’s review a few things that we know about the Bristol Bay watershed and the proposed Pebble Mine:

•The salmon runs of Bristol Bay have sustained residents of this region for approximately 9,000 years, or about 350 generations.

•The proposed mine will sit atop a seismically active saddle that separates two of the most productive salmon-spawning drainages on Earth, Alaska’s Nushagak and Kvichak river systems.

•The mine as envisioned for build-out will produce up to 10 billion tons of tailings, which, when exposed to air and water, will produce sulfuric acid.

•The Pebble Limited Partnership suggests that their gigantic lakes of poison stew will be contained in perpetuity behind earthen dams taller than the Space Needle.

“In perpetuity” means forever, which presents a problem for Earth-based business planning, so in order to frame this in something other than cosmological time, let’s give Pebble’s bean-counters an undeserved break and tell them they only need to come up with enough money to contain the mine tailings for the next 9,000 years.

Now, John Shively is talking to investors all the time, right? So let’s pretend we’re sophisticated investors and he’s trying to convince us to pour money into his open-pit mine. We’re sitting around the conference table, we’re all grownups, and we didn’t get where we are today by being a bunch of organic-cotton-pajamas-for-pants granola crunchers. We got where we are today because 1) We know how to buy low and sell before everyone else does; 2) We’re really good at analyzing financial models; or 3) both.

And we like realistic numbers because that’s what we base our investments on. Other people might make their decisions based on the advice of fly-by-night Canadian stock promoters, but they’re suckers. We are not suckers; we ask tough questions and demand credible answers.

“So, tell us John, what are we looking at in order to maintain the integrity of the tailings dams for the next 9,000 years?” (Isn’t this great? We’re in the room, we’re asking Shively the question, and he’s nodding soberly and bringing up his next PowerPoint slide.)

Except -- sorry to say -- we’re not really sophisticated investors and we’re not really in the room. So we can only speculate about what Mr. Shively’s next PowerPoint slide with the realistic numbers looks like.

Here’s a guess:

•20 employees x 3 shifts per day x $50/hr. = $24,000 per day

•$24,000 per day x 365 days per year x 9,000 years = $78,840,000,000

•Benefits are going to be decent -- figure 35 percent of base salary, so that’s $27,594,000,000

•Total: $106,434,000,000

For those of us rarely called upon to contemplate numbers with more than three or four zeros, we are now north of $106 billion with a ‘b,’ and that’s just for the skeleton crew (no pun intended!) in charge of sulfuric acid containment for the next 9,000 years.

Mr. Shively and his team of financial geniuses may quibble about keeping twenty people on a shift or paying dam-maintenance personnel an inflation-adjusted $50 per hour, but the actual cost to shield Bristol Bay’s salmon runs for future generations are going to be much higher. Think about it; when you’re trying to hold billions of tons of liquid poison behind dirt dams taller than the Space Needle on the freezing tundra-steppe of Southwest Alaska in a howling gale and the occasional earthquake, you’re competing in a labor market that puts a premium on people who are not only competent – we hope – but also willing to spend the most productive part of their working lives engaged in a hopeless task in a very remote environment. They are not cheap, those people.

So call it $106 billion even, and if my calculations are off the mark, I’m sure Mr. Shively will be anxious to correct them. His flinty-eyed investors will certainly demand no less!

The Shively Spreadsheet Challenge

Mr. Shively, we respectfully request that you share with the public the same spreadsheet that you provide to investors – the one that accounts for perpetual management of the Pebble Mine’s tailings dams.

And if, by some weird chance you aren’t planning on absorbing those costs, just let us know who will, and kindly include a copy of the agreement you have with them.

Thanks!

Scott Coughlin spent 27 years commercial fishing in Alaska. He is the owner of Fieldwork Communications, a consulting firm based in Seattle. He also operates Alaska Waypoints, a commercial fishing news and information website.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.