Mining companies have to spend huge amounts of money, energy, and time to build new mines. But if they have producing assets already, then there's cash available to carry the company until the new mine starts producing. What happens when a mining company doesn't have any producing assets? That's the issue facing Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. (NYSEMKT: NAK) and its investors. Here's where this mining company will be in five years -- if everything goes according to plan.
What it's got
There's little question that Northern Dynasty Minerals owns a valuable asset. The Pebble Project, as it is known, contains measured and indicated reserves that would rank it among the largest mines in the world. That includes 57 billion pounds of copper, 71 million ounces of gold, 345 million ounces of silver, and 3.4 billion pounds of molybdenum. The problem here is that Pebble isn't a producing mine. In fact, it isn't even a mine that's being built.
Image source: Getty Images
At this point Pebble is still grappling with the the task of getting the necessary permits to build a mine. This hasn't been an easy process thanks to the location of the property, near Bristol Bay, a key area for salmon fishing. Opposition has been stiff from environmentalists, the salmon industry, and locals. And somewhat surprisingly, a change in the White House hasn't materially altered the situation.
Even assuming the permitting process goes as well as the company hopes, Northern Dynasty won't have permission to move forward until the end of 2020 or early 2021. That doesn't mean the company has to sit on its hands and wait, but getting government approval for the mine is really the lynchpin here. It is the single biggest issue for investors to watch, and it will be the biggest determinant of where Northern Dynasty will be in five years time and beyond.
The Pebble Project could be huge. Image source: Northern Dynasty Minerals
While it is working on the permitting process, Northern Dynasty is doing other prep work. That includes things like engineering, feasibility, and environmental studies. It will also start looking at the design of the project and may even be able to do some of the early groundwork to prepare for the larger construction effort. But all of these things cost money.
Raising some cash
At this point, Northern Dynasty's costs are relatively modest compared to what will be required to actually start building the Pebble Project. But without any operating assets to go with Pebble, Northern Dynasty has no revenue at all coming in. It's losing money now and will likely lose more money as Pebble ramps up until -- and unless -- the project actually starts to produce.
To pay for all of the preliminary work, Northern Dynasty has made multiple secondary offerings of stock. Over the past three years, the would-be miner's share count has roughly tripled. On a positive note, the company has avoided debt, which is a good thing since it has no revenues to cover interest costs. However, every new share that gets issued to pay for the costs of building the mine dilutes the value that current shareholders will see when a mine gets built.
The Pebble Project timeline, as it stands today. Image source: Northern Dynasty Minerals
In fact, Northern Dynasty hasn't even started to look at project financing yet. That isn't scheduled to start until 2019, at the earliest. The red ink today is really all related to getting the mine approved. The costs to build the mine will be much, much larger and may require material share sales, debt, and even taking on partners. In the best case scenario, first product could be coming out of the mine in 2024, with full production in 2025.
Not quite there yet
In five years' time, Northern Dynasty Minerals will likely still be a money-losing company that's still in the process of trying to build a mine. If everything goes according to current plans, the Pebble Project could shortly thereafter be an operating mine, at which point the story will change materially. However, if you are looking at Northern Dynasty Minerals today, you need to recognize that it is really an option on what could be a large mine many years in the future. Conservative investors would be better off avoiding this name for now... and perhaps even another five to seven years.
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