More investors are now inquiring about Coalbed Methane exploration companies. Just as uranium miners were flying well below the radar screen in early 2004, coalbed methane exploration may very well be the next very hot sector later this year and next. Historically, coalbed methane gas endangered coal miners, resulting in alarming fatalities early in the previous century. This is the fate suffered today by many Chinese coal miners in the smaller, private coal mines. Typically, the methane gas trapped in coal seams was flared out, before underground mining began, in order to prevent those explosions. Rising natural gas prices have long since ended that practice.
Today, coalbed methane companies are turning a centuries-long nuisance and byproduct into a valuable resource. About 9 percent of total US natural gas production comes from the natural gas found in coal seams. Because natural gas prices have soared, along with the bull markets found in uranium, oil, and precious and base metals, coalbed methane has come into play. It is after all a natural gas. But because it is outside the realm of the petroleum industry, coalbed methane, or CBM as many industry insiders call it, is called the unconventional gas. It may be unconventional today, but as the industry continue to grow by leaps and bounds, on a global scale, CBM may soon achieve some respect. Please remember that a few years ago, there was very little cheerleading about nuclear energy. Today, positive news items are running far better than ten to one in favor of that power source.
CBM is the natural gas contained in coal. It consists primarily of methane, the gas we use for home heating, gas-fired electrical generation, and industrial fuel. The energy source within natural gas is methane (chemically, it is CH4), whether it comes from the oil industry or from coal beds.
CBM has several strong points in its favor. The gases produced from CBM fields are often nearly 90 percent methane. Which type of gas has more impurities? No, it isn’t the natural, or conventional, gas you thought it might be. Frequently, CBM gas has fewer impurities than the “natural gas” produced from conventional wells. CBM exploration is done at a more shallow level, between 250 and 1000 meters, than conventional gas wells, which sometimes are drilled below 5,000 meters. CBM wells can last a long time – some could produce for 40 years or longer.
Natural gas is created by the compression of underground organic matter combined with the earth’s high temperatures thousands of meters below surface. Conventional gas fills the spaces between the porous reservoir rocks. The coalification process is similar but the result is different: both the coalbed and the methane gas are trapped in the coal seams. Instead of filling the tiny spaces between the rocks, the coal gas is within the coal seams.
One of the past problems associated with CBM exploration was the reliance upon expensive horizontal drilling techniques to extract the methane gas from the coal seams. Advanced fracturing techniques and breakthrough horizontal drilling techniques have increased CBM success ratios. As a result, a growing number of exploration companies are pursuing the early bull market in CBM. Market capitalizations for many of these companies mirror similar “early plays” we mentioned during our mid 2004 uranium coverage (June through October, 2004). Industry experts told us there would be a uranium bull market. Now, we are hearing the same forecasts about CBM.
SEVEN TIPS BY DR. DAVID MARCHIONI
We asked Dr. David Marchioni to provide our subscribers with his 7 Tips to help investors better understand what to look for, before investing in a CBM play. Dr. Marchioni helped co-author the CBM textbook, An Assessment of Coalbed Methane Exploration Projects in Canada, published by the Geological Survey of Canada. He is also president of Petro-Logic Services in Calgary, whose clients have included the Canadian divisions of Apache, BP, BHP, Burlington, Devon, El Paso Energy, and Phillips Petroleum, among others. He is also a director of Pacific Asia China Energy and is overseeing the company’s CBM exploration program in China.
Our series of telephone and email interviews began while Dr. Marchioni sat on a drill rig in Alberta’s foothills, the Manville region, until he finished outlining his top 7 tips, or advices, on how to think like a CBM professional.
1) COAL SEAM THICKNESS
Is there a reasonable thickness of coal? You should find out how thick the coal seams are. With thickness, you get the regional extent of the resource. For example, there must be a minimum thickness into which one can drill a horizontal well.
2) GAS CONTENT
Typically, gas content is expressed as cubic feet of gas per ton of coal. Find how thick it is and how far it is spread. Then, you have a measure of unit gas content. Between coal seam thickness and gas content, you can determine the size of the resource. You have to look at both thickness and gas content. It’s of no use to have high gas content if you don’t have very much coal. The industry looks at resource per unit area. In other words, how much gas is in place per acre, hectare, or square mile? In the early stage of the CBM exploration, this really all you have to work with in evaluating its potential.
3) MATURITY LEVEL OF THE COAL
This is the measure of the stage the coal has reached between the mineral’s inception as peat. Peat matures to become lignite. Later, it develops into bituminous coal, then semi-anthracite and finally anthracite.
There is a progressive maturation of coal as a geological time continuum and the earth’s temperature, depending upon depth. By measuring certain parameters, you can determine where it is in the chemical process. For instance, the chemistry of lignite is different from that of anthracite. This phrasing is called “coal rank” in coal industry terminology.
When you are beginning to think about CBM production, this and the next item must be evaluated. How permeable is the CBM property? You want permeability, otherwise the gas can’t flow. If the coal isn’t permeable at all, you can never generate gas. The gas has to be able to flow. If it is extremely permeable, then you can perhaps never pump enough water. The water just keeps getting replaced from the large area surrounding the well bore. The water will just keep coming, and you will never lower the pressure so the gas can be released.
In a very high proportion of CBM plays, the coal contains quite a lot of water. You have to pump the water off in order to reduce the pressure in the coal bed. Gas is held in coal by pressure. The deeper you go, typically the more gas you get, because the pressure is higher. The way to induce the gas to start flowing is to pump the water out of the coal and lower the “water head” of pressure. How much water are we going to produce? Are we going to have to dispose of it? If it’s fresh, then there may be problems with regulatory agencies. In Alberta, the government has restrictions on extracting fresh water because others might want to use it. One could be tapping into a zone that people use as water wells for farms and rural communities. Both water quality and water volume matter. For example, Manville water is very salient so nobody wants to put it into a river; this water is pushed back down into existing oil and gas wells in permeable zones (but which are also not connected to the coal).
To be able to access land and do some initial drilling, i.e. the first round of financing, it would cost a minimum of C$4 million. This would include some geological work and drilling at least five or six wells. In Horseshoe, that would cost around C$4 million (say 1st round of finance); in Manville, about C$9 million. This is under the assumption that the company doesn’t buy the land. The land in western Canada is very expensive and tightly held. Much of the work is done as a “farm in” drilling on land held by another for a percentage of the play. (Editor’s note: During a previous interview, Dr. Marchioni commented about his preference for Pacific Asia China Energy’s land position in China because comparable land in western Canada would have cost “$100 million or more.”
The geology only tells you what’s there, and what the chances of success are. You then have to pursue it. Can we sell it? Gas prices are “local,” meaning they vary from country to country, depending whether it is locally produced and in what abundance (or lack thereof). How much can we extract? How much is it going to cost us to get it out of the ground? Are there readily available services for this property? Will you have to helicopter a rig onto the property at some incredible price just to drill it? Will you have to build a pipeline to transport the gas? Or, in China as an example, are there established convoys for trucking LNG across hundreds of kilometers?
One addition, which we have mentioned in previous articles, and especially in the Market Outlook Journal, “Quality of Management Attracts PR,” it is important that the CBM company have experienced management. This would mean a management team that includes those who have gotten results, not only a veteran exploration geologist but a team that can sell the story and bring in the mandatory financing to move the project into production.
There are two primary reasons why many of these coalbed methane plays are being taken seriously. First, the macroeconomic reason is that rising energy costs have driven companies in the energy fields to pursue any economic projects to help fill the energy gap. Coalbed methane has a more than two decades of proof in the United States. The excitement has spread to Canada, China and India, where CBM exploration is beginning to take off. Second, the fundamental reason is that exploration work has already been done in delineating coal deposits. There are, perhaps, 800 coal basins globally, with less than 50 CBM producing basins. In other words, there is the potential for growth in this sector.
We discussed with the Ux Consulting president from which countries future uranium supplies may come, and who is going after those supplies more aggressively. He warns about the risks and rewards of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, looks to Africa for supplies, and talks about Russia’s expansion.
StockInterview: How do domestic uranium prospects rate in the eyes of U.S. and foreign utilities?
Jeff Combs: I don’t think that utilities expect the U.S. to be a major supplier of uranium. What you’re seeing with China and other countries, where nuclear power is growing, is that they’re definitely looking to secure supplies. The Chinese are going to Kazakhstan and also Australia, where there are a lot of uranium reserves, a lot of potential for growth. I think there’s some potential for growth in the U.S. But if you had a fast growing nuclear power program, I don’t think the U.S. is the first place I’d look. I believe that you can look for some opportunities in the U.S. But in general, the U.S. utilities are basically in competition with some of these newer entrants into the market for available supplies. Those are primarily outside of the U.S., as U.S. utilities also depend on imports for most of their supplies.
StockInterview: It appears many countries are racing to secure uranium supplies outside their borders.
Jeff Combs: Even Russia, which was a major exporter of uranium in the 1990s, is looking to secure additional supply sources, first to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, former republics of the of Soviet Union, but also to Africa. Russia has an extremely ambitious reactor expansion program, as well as a desire to greatly increase its exports of reactors to countries like China and India. As it stands now, most of the growth in nuclear power is expected to take place in China, India, Russia, as well as Korea and Japan to a certain extent. All these countries are really looking outside their borders for uranium supplies that are going to sustain them for quite a long period in the future. None of them are blessed with very rich and extensive uranium deposits.
StockInterview: Is Russian President Vladimir Putin trying to create something on the order of a Wal-Mart Super Center for the nuclear fuel cycle?
Jeff Combs: Well, you see them doing a joint venture in Kazakhstan. They’re trying to do something with Kyrgyzstan. They’re definitely looking at how they can shore up their supply through imports, in addition to investing a billion dollars in their own internal production. In this respect, they are trying to draw from their old supply chain arrangements. This is to meet their internal needs, as well as the needs of countries to which they have traditionally supplied reactors and the fuel to run these reactors. As Russia looks to expand its reactor sales to countries that don’t have established fuel cycles, they want to be able to supply them with fuel – possibly even lease them the fuel. This means that they have to be prepared to take back the spent fuel. This is due at least in some measure to nonproliferation concerns, in that you don’t want these new entrants building enrichment or reprocessing plants. While Russia has enrichment capacity and the ability to expand this capacity, they also need uranium to be able to supply these countries with enriched uranium. This is why they’re currently focusing on the uranium side of the equation.
StockInterview: Let’s talk about some of the target countries, where those with the more ambitious nuclear energy programs will want to secure uranium.
Jeff Combs: We have recently done a series of reports, looking at countries where major production is taking place, or could take place. Of course we’ve done them on Canada, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. I think the next country might be Mongolia because of the exploration and development activity that is taking place there. Mongolia’s mining laws are very favorable to foreign companies. Mongolia is also located in that part of the world where the bulk of nuclear power expansion is taking place. The problem in Mongolia now is the lack of infrastructure – the location of the exploration sites relative to roads and rail lines, and the ability to connect to the electricity grid and water lines.
StockInterview: There has been so much press and chatter about Kazakhstan. Is there substance in these commentaries, or is it mainly hype?
Jeff Combs: They’ve got a lot of uranium resources and reserves. They’ve also got a commitment to expanding production there and a pretty big customer in China. The hype might be related more as to whether they can do it as quickly as they say, as opposed to whether they can eventually get to the levels they’re talking about. One of the things that will slow them down is the infrastructure, including the skilled work force, needed to expand at that rate. They have increased production. They definitely will continue to increase production, but perhaps not at the rates they are advertising. They’ve produced a lot in the past, in the old Soviet Union days. I think they can get back up to those production levels, but it’s going to take some time.
StockInterview: What will be required to get things going in Kazakhstan?
Jeff Combs: It appears they’ve been able to attract capital. A large part of it is just the time is takes to build the infrastructure, including training workers. You can have all of the investment in the world, but it still takes time to get things done, especially if the infrastructure isn’t well developed in the first place. If you look at Kazakhstan on the map, it is very close or adjacent to Russia, China, and India, where the major part of nuclear growth is occurring. I don’t think there will be any shortage of demand for their output.
StockInterview: Where does Japan fit into the current uranium bull market?
Jeff Combs: Japan is definitely a factor in the market. Their growth might not be as rapid as it once was, or once was expected to be. With Japan you have a country that does not really have any indigenous uranium resources to speak of. They really need to import uranium. To facilitate this and to secure future supplies, Japan has historically developed different supply relationships around the world, both by taking positions in uranium mines and by nurturing long-term relationships with producers. I think that it’s likely the case that this recent price rise caught them somewhat off guard, but recently Japanese utilities have put more effort into shoring up their supply options.
StockInterview: There are countries, which get little media coverage, such as Namibia. How does this country rate?
Jeff Combs: I think Namibia will definitely have an important role in supplying uranium. I don’t think it’s going to have the expansion potential of Canada, Australia, or Kazakhstan, but I think South Africa, Niger and Namibia are going to be an important component for uranium supply in the future.
StockInterview: You mentioned Niger, which was the world’s third largest uranium producer, and has now fallen to number four, behind Kazakhstan.
Jeff Combs: The funny thing about Niger is that in a way it’s sort of fallen off the radar screen. It produces, but it just doesn’t get the press as other places. If the price increases, it really changes how people look at all these different projects going forward and a lot of things, which might not have been looked at 20 years ago or so, are being reinvestigated. Obviously, there is uranium in Niger. It’s quite important to the economy there. As I said, they haven’t really been on the radar screen as much as a lot of other regions in the world. Perhaps this is because production there has been controlled by the French for a long time. There are some Canadian companies exploring in Niger now. Since this activity is fairly recent, it won’t likely bear any fruit for five to ten years down the road.
StockInterview: Do you foresee realistic nuclear energy expansion in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East?
Jeff Combs: Frankly, I haven’t focused on that very much. I know that Turkey is looking to do something. At some point, I think you would see more nuclear power in the Middle East just because the oil supplies aren’t going to last indefinitely. We do a headline news service, and it’s packed full of stories on different countries that are looking at nuclear power. It seems like there is a new country added to the list every day. I know, for instance, that Vietnam is looking pretty seriously at nuclear power. It would not be surprising there would be interest in the Middle East. There is a lot of focus on the problems associated with Iran. Overall, I’m a believer that if you have more nuclear power, then you’re going to have fewer problems with energy and more economic development, higher standards of living, and that’s going to be a big positive that will outweigh the negatives in situations like Iran.
StockInterview: Speaking of Iran, what is Washington’s sentiment toward nuclear energy, aside from the Bush Administration’s endorsement?
Jeff Combs: I think there is a growing recognition, even among Democrats, that you need nuclear power as part of the energy mix. You’re not going to get there just by renewable energy sources. With the environmental and overall energy challenges we’re facing now, with higher and higher natural gas and oil prices. From the U.S. standpoint the vulnerability with respect to secure energy supplies, I think there is a growing recognition that nuclear power is part of the solution, and this thinking extends outside of the Bush administration. I’ve talked to people, and they believe that even if a Democratic administration came in that you really wouldn’t necessarily put a damper on nuclear power.
StockInterview: What about the Hillary Clinton Factor, if she becomes the next U.S. President?
Jeff Combs: I haven’t really asked her for her views on nuclear power recently. I think the story for nuclear power is not so much what happens in the United States, which certainly could add more reactors. The rest of the world probably looks to what the U.S. does to a certain extent. I think the real growth in nuclear power, and what’s likely to drive the market in the future, is on the part of the developing countries in the eastern part of the world. These would be China, India, Korea and Russia, where economies are growing a lot more quickly, not the really mature economies like in the U.S. and Europe. Although I would expect to see some growth there as well. In this respect, having a Democratic president would not derail what’s happening in nuclear power or the uranium market. As mentioned earlier, I think that you see a more general acceptance of nuclear power across party lines, in Europe as well as the U.S., although there are still some factions that are virulently anti-nuclear.
Before we talk about the potential of uranium shortages and the steep price rise in that energy source, could you explain how you got started with this idea, and what is the philosophy behind Strathmore’s acquisition program of uranium properties?
Several years ago, Strathmore Minerals started with the idea of acquiring properties “out of the money” at very cheap prices in the belief that the uranium prices would recover so that our assets would be worth more. No one was paying attention to the commodity we chose: uranium. Strathmore Minerals is basically a call on the price of uranium. That’s how we started the company. This strategy is similar to what Lumina Copper (AMEX: LCC) used and what Silver Standard used. For example, the chairman of Silver Standard Resources (NASDAQ: SSRI) is on our board of directors. Our first step was to buy every pound we could for as cheaply as possible. The second step is to buy property that we think we can put into production. We are actively looking for those.
But uranium has a powerful environmental stigma. Why, then, are you enthusiastic about this type of energy source?
As with most people, when I began investigating uranium, I thought this was bad stuff. I thought of Three Mile Island and everything else. The more homework I did on this, the more I realized that nuclear power is clean and safe. That is primarily what uranium is used for now. It should be known that no one ever died at Three Mile Island. No one actually died at Chernobyl. Yes, people got sick. Compare that to coal or the oil spills in the fossil fuel sector, and the damage it has done to the environment. The problem is no one is championing nuclear energy. Frankly, the “greenies” have done a great job of burying the story. As I did homework, I found out France relies on nuclear power for about 78 to 80 percent of its electricity needs. I realized that somebody did a great job lobbying and built a very unhealthy picture toward uranium, when really it’s needed. We don’t talk about the cost of coal. We don’t talk about global warming. But, look at what coal has done. Global warming is a function of fossil fuels. That is why you are seeing a growing positive response to nuclear power. For example, one company has applied to put a new nuclear reactor into the US.
To what do you attribute the recent, steep price rise in uranium?
Since last year, the price of uranium (U3O8) has climbed back steeply back up. At one point, the price was moving up about $1/pound per month. Uranium’s price is more in line with the price of oil as opposed to other commodities. For a long time, we’ve only produced on the average about 90 million pounds, when we needed 140 (million pounds). There’s been an imbalance for a number of years. This extra came from foreign sources, or from internal US inventories. Since the 1980s, we’ve been using more uranium than we have been producing in the western world. As a result, the extra that we’ve needed has come from Russia, the US government or inventory that utilities had.
But most investors, let alone the consumer, don’t know that uranium’s spot price has nearly tripled, since bottoming three years ago. Why is that?
Uranium only makes up one percent of the cost of running a nuclear reactor. The biggest factor in why uranium prices can go up, even more rapidly than gold, is that uranium is insensitive to its use. Uranium prices can go much higher. In casual conversations with a few Toronto analysts, some believe it can go up to $80 or $100/pound. For example, if the price of gold tomorrow went to $800/ounce, it will affect someone’s purchasing decision. The guy might say, “I was going to buy this ring and now it’s up 70 percent because the price of gold is up. Maybe I will buy a silver ring instead.” The same occurs with other commodities. People may change their purchasing decision based on a commodity price doubling.
If the price of uranium went to $44/pound, the average consumer’s electricity bill might go up a few dollars. It is not going to force someone to turn off their power. However, if the price of oil doubled tomorrow, many of us would be driving smaller vehicles. It would make a fundamental difference in how we behave. That’s not going to happen with the price of uranium. It’s like buying pencils for your office. It’s not going to change the way you do business. Even if no nuclear reactors come onboard for the next few years, the ones already there will need the pounds (of uranium). We have a shortage coming up.
Why do you believe a uranium shortage is in the cards?
Bottom line is: the nuclear reactors are going to run out of fuel. You have to know that permitting takes a long time in the uranium industry. It’s not like finding a gold property tomorrow and maybe two years from now you are pouring gold. Typically, the permit takes at least three years out. Because nuclear reactors need it, that’s what is causing the price rise. Demand has kept going higher, but production has fallen off the chart. In this industry there are only about half a dozen companies exploring for uranium. At one time, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were almost 150 uranium companies. There hasn’t been any underground mining since the early 1990s. And that doesn’t even include a wild card: there has been talk that by 2020, 90 percent of the nuclear reactors coming onboard will be for China.
And what would reverse uranium’s steep price rise?
The only thing that could kill this market would be if Russia discovered it had a lot more pounds to sell. Or the US government, through USEG, came up with more pounds. When we first entered the market, eight years ago uranium rose to around $17-$18/pound. Then it fell. What happened was the U.S. government sold their uranium to a private group, who turned around and dumped it into the market, from then until last year. In October of last year, the Russians were also dumping uranium onto the market for their hard cash.
If replacement value for uranium comes in the form of exploration costs to find and mine this energy source, what would that cost be?
Realistically, it would be $20 to $22/pound. I know some are going to say they can do it for less. By the time you take your exploration costs, development costs, and so on, you really need to get $22 to $25 for most properties to go into production and still make money. That’s why most of what you see in the market are ISL (in situ leach) projects. On one property we discovered, it would cost between $16 and $17/ pound to pull it out of the ground. But on others, it might take $20 – 22/pound to pull it out of the ground, after labor costs and sell it on a forward contract. Canada is producing the most uranium because of the grades. Some say Canada has the lowest cost, but that’s not quite accurate. What they mean to say is that the cash costs are the lowest. People forget that it costs up to $2 billion to put some of these into production. Cameco (NYSE: CCJ) was a creature of the government at one time. They were treated that way.
Earlier you noted that investing in Strathmore Minerals was “basically a call on the price of uranium.” Can you clarify what you meant by that?
As uranium prices, the share price of Strathmore Minerals should rise. If you look at Bema (Amex:BGO), when gold prices were at $265/ounce, what was it worth? As the price of gold moved up, it had value. Has it gone into production yet? No. Silver Standard (NASDAQ:SSRI) is similar, but it has had to tell its story because people are so focused on gold. The key for investors is not to go where the crowds go, but to go where you can find value. If you believe that nuclear power is the place to be, and the shortage is real, you have got to own uranium stocks.
What sets Strathmore Minerals apart from any other exploration companies in this sector?
I challenge any junior exploration company to show an individual who has actually put an ISL (in situ leach) uranium mine into production, including Cameco. They just aren’t around because the industry has been dead since the early 1980s. There aren’t many experts left in this business. The last standing geologist, which Cogema had, was David Miller, who is now working with Strathmore Minerals, as our head consultant. He is the one who has put the Strathmore strategy together. We’ve been looking in southern and eastern Africa. Strathmore is going wherever there are pounds that others have overlooked. Our competitive edge is a database we acquired from Kerr McGee (NYSE: KMD), which used to be number one in the uranium industry. Recently, we announced properties in Wyoming that could be satellite ISLs. We have enough pounds there that we could throw one of them into production. But we still need higher prices. We are still in the acquisition stage.
Strathmore is going to be very aggressive in picking up properties that we think have pounds in the ground or smaller properties that we think can be ISL-able in the US. Everything we’re looking at in the US is for ISL. In Canada, we have over 700,000 hectares in the Athabascan region. That’s a major asset for us. It’s one of the richest areas in the world for uranium. Some of our targets are near existing mines. In Quebec, we’ve got a large property that was drilled by Uranerz. Robert Quartermain has certainly been a part of that strategy. That’s what he did with Silver Standard, and that’s what we’re doing here. We are aggressively going after properties. When sophisticated investors meet our team, they see the story we’ve got and they see our management. You’ll see why we were able to millions of dollars in financings. Our strategy has been to buy the has-been properties, the low fruit in all the trees. And that’s what we’ve been doing.
Mr. Randhawa founded Strathmore Minerals Corp. in 1996 and is currently the Company’s CEO. Mr. Randhawa also founded and is currently the President of RD Capital Inc., a privately held consulting firm providing venture capital and corporate finance services to emerging companies in the resources and non-resource sectors both in Canada and the US. Prior to founding RD Capital Inc., Mr. Randhawa was in the brokerage industry for 6 years as an investment advisor and corporate finance analyst. Mr. Randhawa was formerly the President of Lariat Capital Inc. which merged with Medicure in November 1999 and the was the founder and former President and CEO of Royal County Minerals Corp. which was taken over by Canadian Gold Hunter (formerly International Curator) in July 2003. Mr. Randhawa also founded Predator Capital Inc., which became Predator Exploration. Mr. Randhawa received a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration with Honors from Trinity Western College of Langley, British Columbia in 1983 and received his Masters in Business Administration from the University of British Columbia in 1985.
Perhaps the White House flap as to whether or not Saddam Hussein’s government tried to buy uranium ore from the country of Niger was the best publicity Niger has had about its uranium production for more than two decades. How many geologists know that the Republic of Niger ranks fourth, behind Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan, in terms of the quantity of uranium annually produced worldwide?
Named after the river which runs through it, Niger produces nearly four times the uranium currently mined in the United States. More uranium is mined in Niger than in Russia, South Africa, India, China, Brazil, Ukraine Namibia or Uzbekistan. In fact, if you added up the total amount of uranium mined in South Africa, China, India, Brazil, Czech Republic and the Ukraine for 2004, Niger would trump the combined production of those six countries. Until Dr. Jon North came along, uranium mining was pretty much monopolized by Cogema and a consortium that includes Spanish and Japanese interests.
“This is the fourth largest uranium producer in the world,” raved an excited Dr. North into his cell phone during our taped interview. “Niger has never had an entrepreneurial and nimble junior mining company ever explore for uranium. And this is the first one.” North was talking about Northwestern Mineral Ventures (TSX: NWT; OTC BB: NWTMF). “Imagine if Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan having never had a junior company looking for uranium. It’s absolutely absurd to even consider the concept.”
The Republic of Niger supplies about 9 percent of the world’s annual production to meet the growing need for uranium to fuel the world’s nuclear reactors. According to the IAEA-NEA Red Book of 2003, the sub-Saharan Niger ranked #4 behind Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada for total uranium reserves. In the 2005 update, it fell to seventh place. It may be that this country is under-explored. In 1981, Niger produced a peak of 4366 tonnes of uranium. As with others, mining production plummeted with the spot price of uranium during the 1980s and 1990s. The slump hit the country hard because Niger depends upon uranium for more than 30 percent of its exports, more than $100 million. Five percent of the country’s tax revenues come from uranium mining.
Dr. North discussed how he came to obtain concessions for both his company, North Atlantic Resources (TSX: NAC) and Northwestern Mineral Ventures, in which he serves as a director and helps guide geological colleague and president Marek Kreczmer. “I traveled around the Sahara Desert twice on field trips with a local Niger geologist before I decided to apply for permits. When I did this in 2004 with the minister of mines, he said to me, ‘You know, you’re the first person to ever do this, and the only people who have done this are energy companies or governments.’ So, I told him I would like to apply for two permits.” North obtained two for Northwestern Mineral Ventures and another for North Atlantic Resources.
Salt Tectonics the Key to Uranium in Niger
North explained, “We selected the projects based on the geologic ingredients that we felt were important in the control and distribution in the uranium, such as, but not limited to, northwest trending fault corridors, northeast trending fault corridors, and inliers of stratigraphy that are popping up through younger parts of the stratigraphy.” According to North, the salt structures are the key to finding uranium in the Republic of Niger. “The northeast and northwest faults, and the inlier there, are all salt-related structures,” North remarked. An inlier is an area or formation of older rocks completely surrounded by younger layers. “For decades, the oilfield people have understood, emphasized and completed research on salt, the deposition and then the movement of salt through stratigraphic sequences,” North pointed out.
Salt is very common but it doesn’t last very long in stratigraphy and it escapes, North explained. “When it escapes, it forms walls and diapirs (an anticlinal fold where the salt has pierced through the more brittle overlying rock).” Oil exploration geologists pay attention to these because they tend to form permeability barriers to oil and gas deposits. North is interested in them for a different reason, “We noticed that the salt diapirs, where they escaped through the sequence in Niger, coincided with the distribution of uranium deposits.”
Uranium in the Republic of Niger is mined by open pit because of the sandstones. “These are redox deposits,” North noted. “They tend to be associated with reduced layers and structures, such as the former salt diapirs and faults in the stratigraphy. At the time, we didn’t really understand why we were doing that. We just knew there was an association with uranium deposits and these structures in Niger.”
That appears to have made Dr. North’s job a walk in the park, or in this case, a walk in the desert. How do you inexpensively explore concessions of 2,000 square kilometers each? That’s about 24 miles and 30 miles each, both in the desert. “If you do the target selection carefully, and you stick to the salt diapirs, those really narrow down the search,” North revealed. “When we do our first multi sensor mag and radiometric survey, which will happen in the next couple of months, we will map out those structures and features, and look for radiometric anomalies associated with them. When we have that data, we’ll have at least 50 drill targets on those projects.” There appear to be no scarcity of drill targets on the concessions.
Without that data, North believed he could have picked out ten high quality drill targets, just from the geology map. “They show up as circular bull’s eyes on geology maps,” North noted excitedly. “In the desert they show up as low hills. They’re topographic anomalies where you have about maybe 50 meters of relief. It’s just a low rise because the desert is flat as piss on a plate.” North explained that you can drive anywhere by pointing your vehicle and stepping on the gas. “The only things in your way are these very low hills, and those hills are related to either faults or inliers (exposed older rocks surrounded by younger rocks).” Initial targeting comes straight from a topography map.
A Vote of Confidence on Current Progress
But what about the availability of drill rigs for this project? North conceded there is a global shortage. But he shot back, “There’s a drilling company in West Africa called West African Drilling services – and surprise! surprise! – I’ve been working with them for the past four years.” North has already discussed moving a rig in with them. “Quite honestly, it’s not a big issue,” he said. Neither is labor or the cost of drilling. “We pay an all-inclusive cost of approximately US$150/meter,” North told us. “Labor costs are very low, about one-third the cost of North America. We use all local people because that’s what we do in Mali. There are lots of highly trained, skilled geologists in Niger.”
Clearly, Northwest Mineral Ventures is excited. “We are very pleased to be one of the first North American companies to acquire exploration permits in Niger – a country that has not been explored using modern techniques and has, until now, been one of the world’s best-kept uranium secrets,” Northwestern’s Chairman and CEO Kabir Ahmed told Reuters in wire service story published in March.
Northwestern Mineral President Marek Krezcmer, who has been a geologist for more than thirty years, seventeen of which were spent exploring in Africa, was also enthused about the company’s prospects in Niger, “We know there is uranium mineralization on the surface, based on the work which was done by Jon North. I think we can succeed. We’re going to find uranium.” Kreczmer is familiar with geology in Africa and doing business on this continent. “I’ve worked in Tanzania, Zambia, Swaziland, Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Kreczmer. He was optimistic about developing Northwestern Mineral Venture’s uranium concessions, “Our business plan there is to discover mineralization, and (have) probably someone like Cogema become a partner of choice.”
At Cogema’s seven open pit uranium mines which feed the Arlitt mill, the grades have run 0.3 percent with 2003 production at 1126 tonnes. At the two open pit uranium mines which feed the Akouta mill, grades have run at between 0.4 and 0.5 percent with 2003 production at 2017 tonnes. Krezcmer explained that Northwestern’s exploration licenses are valid for a period of nine years, three-year licenses which are renewable three times. The country’s mining act, according to Krezcmer allows Northwestern to apply for a mining license, which can be granted for between 25 and 70 years.
We were concerned with any political situations, but both North and Kreczmer assured us the country is stable. “When I first went to Niger in November 2004, and that was during the last election, it honestly looked like a lot of fun. Everybody had a little piece of rag tied around their wrist or tied to the antenna of their car to represent their political affiliation.” Kreczmer added, “My experience working in Africa is that because this country relies so heavily on foreign aid, the World Bank has great influence.”
The Republic of Niger has North’s vote on confidence. He has worked for the past few years as Chief Executive of North Atlantic Resources, which hopes to develop its Kantela gold property in Mali. Niger and Mali and demographically and geographical identical, he told us. North feels Niger is going to become more aggressive in developing its uranium properties. He talked about how the President of Niger told his minister of mines, “Get out there and advertise Niger as being open for business. We want people to come in here and invest. We want to give them mineral rights, and we want them to do what Mali is doing.” From the looks of it, the first to jump on the Niger bandwagon were Northwestern Minerals and North Atlantic Resources, but they won’t be the last.
“My experience with Niger is that it’s a peaceful, democratic country with no civil unrest. Let’s put it this way. They have less civil unrest than France.” Ironically, French is one of the country’s official languages. “You gotta be fair, right?” asked North. “The French recently stormed the Bastille in France, and they didn’t do anything like that in Niger.”
Just how exhilarated is Dr. Jon North? “The excitement in the market is we do the airborne survey,” he enthused. “We find some radiometric anomalies that correlated within inliers. We show the model. If that doesn’t excite people, then I don’t think their hearts are beating.”
Energy Guru Bill Powers Forecasts Uranium Shortfall in Three Years. Bill Powers focuses on investment opportunities in the Canadian energy sector, mainly independent oil & gas companies and now uranium companies. We talked with him and he thinks uranium could reach $100/pound this decade.
Interviewer: A lot of newsletters cover oil and gas, but you picked uranium, which hardly anyone was covering until recently?
Bill Powers: I feel the uranium market right now is the world’s most unbalanced commodity market. In a sense, the world, through the nuclear power industry, consumes approximately 172 million pounds of uranium per year, and the world only produces about 92 million pounds of uranium per year. The supply deficit is made up through above-ground inventories, which are being worked down pretty quickly. Those numbers were supplied by Uranium Information Center. A lot of my information comes from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For example, I discovered from them that the U.S. produced, through the 1980s, about 43.7 million pounds of uranium. And by 2002, the U.S. only produced about 2.34 million pounds of uranium.
Interviewer: Where is uranium being produced in the United States?
Bill Powers: Wyoming. There is also a uranium facility in Nebraska. I think there are two in-situ leach plants in Wyoming and another one in Nebraska. There are a couple of phosphate farmers in Florida who produce uranium. I believe there is a facility in Texas that also produces uranium. For the most part, the uranium industry in New Mexico has just about been wiped out. The very low prices that we’ve seen, for about twenty years, have pretty much wiped out the entire U.S. uranium industry. To go from over 43 million pounds to less than 2.5 million pounds, it has really only allowed the most productive, highest margin and most efficient mines in the country to continue operating in that environment.
Interviewer: So that makes the U.S. a net importer of uranium?
Bill Powers: Absolutely. According to the DOE, US imports have gone from 3.6 million pounds per year in 1980 to 52.7 million pounds per year in 2002. A lot of it comes from Canada, but a significant amount is coming from the Russians, through a program called HEU (highly enriched uranium): the megatons to megawatts program. It’s where the United States Enrichment Corporation, as well as its partner in Russia, took highly enriched uranium and broke it down into lower grade uranium that could be marketed to nuclear power companies throughout North America and around the world. This has been one of the reasons we’ve had lower prices. All of this uranium has cluttered the market the past few years. And the US Enrichment Corporation has a lot to do with why we’ve seen low uranium prices here in the States. I had a conversation with them about the fact that since 1998, when they became a public company (after being a company that was owned by the U.S. government), their long-term inventories of uranium had declined. When they became a private corporation, the U.S. government gave them 7,000 tons of enriched uranium and 50 tons of highly enriched uranium. They have been selling about 6 million pounds of uranium into the marketplace every year since 1998. According to my conversation with them, they have about three to four more years of selling. It’s because the US Enrichment Corporation wants to get out of the uranium storage business, and they want to be in the processing business.
Interviewer: How long will it be, do you think, before USEC is going to stop being a factor on the selling price pressure of uranium?
Bill Powers: I would probably say in about three years. For the uranium they are now selling, the cost of the uranium to them was zero. This has really made that company look very profitable. They are selling about $100 million worth of uranium every year, and they intend to do this at no matter what price. This is an extremely bullish scenario right now because uranium prices have touched twenty-year highs, despite the fact that USEC is dumping more than three percent of the world’s uranium consumption onto the market place. When this dries up, we should see markedly higher uranium prices.
Interviewer: How high is high when you say that?
Bill Powers: I would say up to $100 per pound. Before the end of this decade, uranium will probably be $100/pound. The Russians are going to be holding back some of their output from the megatons to megawatts project. Their (the Russian) uranium is going to be needed for internal consumption. Russia has a growing nuclear power industry. They need to have uranium supplies available. They’re not going to be selling as much as they had in previous years. It appears it is going to be very important to factor in reduced Russian supplies as well as when USEC gets out of the business.
Interviewer: How can a sophisticated investor benefit from uranium’s rising price?
Bill Powers: The most leveraged investments are the Canadian juniors. I believe Cameco (NYSE: CCJ) has other businesses out of uranium exploration and production, and it is a very safe way to play uranium. But I think there are far better opportunities out there. One of my favorite companies is Strathmore Minerals (TSX-V: STM). I really like their business model of acquiring a great deal of very prospective uranium properties at bargain basement prices. They’re able to do this because, right now, uranium has gone through a twenty-year depression. The prices for some of these pretty far advanced projects are very cheap. I think they are well leveraged for that. Another safe way to play uranium is Denison Mines (TSX: DEN). They produce about 1.3 million pounds per year. They have properties are in McLean Lake, Saskatchewan, which is part of the Athabasca Basin. What I like about them is they are able to use their cash flow from their existing production to further expand some of their properties. With UEX Corporation (TSX: UEX), Cameco was the shareholder. UEX was founded several years ago with Pioneer Minerals. Both of the companies put in properties. It’s look like they are rapidly advancing some of their properties in Athabasca. I believe they have about eleven properties they have an interest in.
Interviewer: What about other energy factors, such as crude oil, and what do you see happening there?
Bill Powers: I would say crude oil is heading much higher. We have reached the worldwide production peak of crude oil, or we are very close to it. This is not very well recognized. As demand continues to rise, and world production starts a downward slope, we’re heading for much higher crude oil prices. I see much higher prices later this decade, if nothing goes wrong. What I mean by that is the natural market equilibrium price of crude oil should be $50 within the next eighteen months. And probably over $100 by the end of this decade if nothing goes dramatically wrong. That would come from the natural decline of existing reservoirs, limited new discoveries, and increasing demand. However, if a country, such as Saudi Arabia, were to have a regime change…
Interviewer: Are you looking for a regime change in Saudi Arabia?
Bill Powers: Yes, there is a body of evidence that supports this. Terrorist incidents are becoming more violent and closer together in Saudi Arabia. Right now, we’re seeing those attacks targeted to the oil workers. I believe it will not be too long before those attacks are focused more on the royal family. I believe that will be the next stage in Saudi Arabia. There’s a very good chance, which history supports, is when there are sudden regime changes in oil-exporting countries, oil exports from those countries drop significantly. Regardless of what were to happen, as far as the political situation, a lot of their fields, especially Ghawar, which is the biggest oilfield in the world – it produces between 4 and 4.5 million barrels per day – there is evidence that this field could decline relatively soon. Saudi-Aramco has been injecting substantial amounts of water into injection wells to push the keep production flat What this has done is it keeps production flat, but it’s sort of an illusionary fountain of youth. If you keep injecting water, the amount of water you produce, along with the oil, continues to rise. As the water cut continues to increase, the amount of oil produced can fall dramatically. If that were to happen, if Ghawar were to go into a permanent and irreversible decline – well, it could happen relatively quickly. There are other fields in the Middle East, such as Yibal in Oman, where they had a lot of water flooding and horizontal well drilling. Yibal has gone from 250,000 barrels per day in the late 1990s to about 80,000 barrels per day now. If we were to get that type of decline in Ghawar, the world is going to be seeing higher prices just on that. Right now, there is not any excess oil production supply anywhere in the world. A relatively small reduction in availability of supply will lead to an exponentially higher oil price.