Striking Alaskan Gold: A New Super-Deposit in the Making?

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Though gold discoveries in Latin America and other far-flung locations have been lighting up the stock markets lately, Alaska is now earning back some of the limelight.

NG NAK THM

The latest development to illustrate how their world class discoveries rival the best on offer anywhere else in the world involves a new high-grade discovery zone at the emerging 10.9 million ounce Livengood gold deposit in politically stable, pro-mining central Alaska. Wholly owned by International Tower Hill Mines, the deposit is located 70 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Last week, the company announced its best drill results to date. This new development could lead to a significant expansion of what by global standards is already an unusually large asset, according to company CEO Jeff Pontius.

With drilling highlights that include 112 meters of 2.63 grams per tonne of gold, he adds that ITH is now tapping into previously unexplored deeper gold mineralization, which is still shallow enough to be amenable to cost-efficient open pit mining.

"This all bodes well for what could evolve into a major resource expansion of the deposit," he says

Several mining analysts who have studied ITH's recent drill results concur with Pontius, at least in terms of acknowledging their potential to enrich the overall value of the deposit. They include Toronto-basedAlex Terentiew of the global investment bank Credit Suisse.

"The high grades lead us to suspect there is good potential for the average grade of the deposit to be enhanced," Terentiew says. "As the deposit is designed as a bulk tonnage, low grade mine, an increase in the average life-of-mine grade can have a substantial impact on the project economics."

A pre-feasibility study (an initial blueprint for a mine) is underway at Livengood and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2011, by which time ITH hopes to have outlined considerably more gold, Pontius says.

He adds that the prolific size of the deposit has already attracted potential takeover candidates. They include some of the world's largest gold miners, all of which are scrambling to replenish dwindling gold inventories. This is proving to be a daunting challenge against a backdrop of a global, decade-long trend of falling output numbers, which have been consistently dropping at around 5% per annum.

Hence, the world's well-established gold producers - emboldened by strong balance sheets - are all focused on ramping-up their production figures to continue to cash in on a secular bull market in bullion prices. So says Michael Jalonen, a Toronto-based mining analyst for theU.S. investment bank Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

In a recent research report entitled"Global Gold M&A Heats Up," he says that these gold miners cannot rely on organic growth alone, and that they stand to grow much faster by making acquisitions.

" We expect the reserve-hungry senior and mid-tier producers to continue focusing their attention on resource-rich junior producers and developers," Jalonen adds.

"By our count, the top 10 gold producers under coverage will need to replace 38 million ounces of gold reserves mined in 2010," he says. "We estimate the biggest gold companies could generate $80 billion of free cash flow over the 2010-2015 period that could be deployed for acquisitions."

Pontius is remaining tight-lipped as to who ITH's suitors actually are. However the 5.4 million ounce Fort Knox Mine, which is owned by mining powerhouse Kinross Gold Corp. ( KGC ), lies just 60 miles southeast of the Livengood project.

The Fort Knox mine is expected to wind down by the time Livengood may be ready for commercialization. And Kinross has extensive gold processing infrastructure already in place that could be of value to ITH, assuming the project gets the go-ahead to become a mine in 2016 or the following year.

Such a scenario makes Kinross an obvious strong contender to gobble up ITH, according to Wendell Zerb, a Vancouver-based mining analyst for the stock brokerage firm Canaccord Genuity.

"Kinross is a very logical potential candidate for being interested in Livengood," he says. "But given the size of the deposit, there could be a fit with a number of different major gold mining companies."

The overall size of Livengood's growing asset base is already a strong selling point as major mining companies are known to prefer deposits that can yield significant amounts of gold year after year. Ones that can have a meaningful impact on their bottom line.

And 10-million-ounce-plus deposits are becoming increasing rare worldwide, according to Zerb, who adds that Livengood is "one of only a few very large gold assets with considerable upside leverage in a strong gold environment (greater than US $1,100/oz)."

This view is shared by Michael Curran, a Toronto-based mining analyst for the major Canadian investment bank RBC Capital Markets.

"In our view, International Tower Hill has been one of the better exploration success stories over the past few years," he says. "With potential for resource increases ... we see above average potential for the deposit to ultimately be developed as a large open pit mine capable of producing +500,000 oz/yr."

Meanwhile, Novagold and Northern Dynasty have already demonstrated how big Alaska's world-class gold discoveries can actually get. Their giant assets are located in western Alaska and weigh-in at 37.9 million ounces and 66.9 million ounces, respectively.

Novagold is an equal partner with the world's largest gold miner, Barrick Gold Corp. ( ABX ), in the development of the Donlin Creek deposit, which promises to becomeone of just a handful of operations worldwide that can yield more than one million ounces of gold annually. The partners are aiming to bring the mine on-stream by 2017 or 2018.

Northern Dynasty is also in a 50/50 partnership with another big league mining multinational, Anglo American plc (AAUKY.PK),to develop the Pebble project, which is by far the largest gold deposit in the Americas. The deposit's owners hope to commission a mine by 2016.

By comparison, the Cerro Casale mine-in-the-making in Chile, which is jointly owned by Barrick Gold and Kinross Gold, is Latin America's biggest in-development gold project. It hosts 26.4 million ounces. And only six other deposits of around 10 million ounces in size or better are being developed in South America, with three of them located in politically problematic Venezuela.

Disclosure:

See also 2011 Outlook: Economy Should Do Better Than Market Expects on seekingalpha.com



The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Investing , Commodities

Referenced Stocks: ABX , KGC , NAK , NG , THM

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