Precious Metals Production
Fighting a declining trend since the 1990s
While many countries around the globe suffered drops in metals production in 2020, Nevada’s mining industry was relatively immune to the pandemic, since Governor Steve Sisolak designated it as an essential industry. Companies in Nevada started to witness the rapid expansion of Covid-19 in February 2020 and began reacting to the virus’ spread in early March.
“Favorable metals prices meant that the sector did not want production to drop, so it had to find alternative ways of working and enabling the industry to continue operating without disruptions,” explained Jeff Parshley, corporate consultant at SRK Consulting.
Having an infrastructure that has grown resilient to market volatility and the fact that mining operations have a particularly high level of health and safety awareness culture facilitated the way mining companies managed the health crisis. In addition, the global nature of the mining industry meant that some companies already had experience in dealing with other health crises such as Ebola, which they were able to apply to the management of Covid-19.
According to data from the Nevada Division of Minerals, gold production in 2020 was 4.63 million oz, which only represented a 5% decrease relative to 2019. Similarly, silver production in 2020 was 6.13 million oz, representing a 2.5% decrease compared to the previous year.
"I am a great believer in recognizing your host country as your core stakeholder, and investing in a young, local workforce is a big part of Barrick’s strategy."
Mark Bristow, President and CEO, Barrick
However, Nevada’s gold and silver production has been steadily decreasing over the past years. Both precious metals reached their peak production in the late 1990s and have been trending downward ever since. This is not exclusive to Nevada; the fact is that major gold companies worldwide are running out of reserves and the grades have progressively become lower. While the state’s geological potential is still enormous, all of the easy, low-hanging fruit has already been picked. New deposits are becoming increasingly costlier to discover because they are in remote or difficult locations, in orebodies that are technically very challenging such as deep underground veins or refractory ore, or are so far off the beaten path as to require the building of new infrastructure from scratch at great expense.
"Nevada Gold Mines is the flagship example of how the gold industry can look for opportunities to consolidate within a region."
Tom Palmer, President and CEO, Newmont
Mergers, acquisitions and asset exchanges
With declining reserves and ore grades, it is not surprising that precious metals producers, in order to grow, need to join forces or eat each other up. Mega mergers and joint ventures have marked Nevada’s mining industry in recent years.
The most prominent example of M&A activity was the creation of Nevada Gold Mines (NGM) in 2019, the joint venture between Barrick (61.5%) and Newmont (38.5%). The two giants decided to combine their assets to create the world’s largest gold producing complex. Mark Bristow, president and CEO of Barrick Gold, explained the rationale behind the joint venture’s creation: “The trajectory was downwards for both companies in Nevada before the merger. Newmont had very little resource potential left but had infrastructure which was significant for Barrick because it was geographically in the right place. Barrick had high quality assets, but infrastructure in the wrong place. By establishing NGM, we turned it into a genuine, long term, value creating mining enterprise.”
“Overall, this agreement has extended the life of mine and has brought additional ounces into the plants, reducing costs and improving efficiencies,” added Greg Walker, executive managing director of NGM.
The giant complex produced 2.1 million oz Au in 2020 and expects to yield between 2.1 and 2.25 million oz in 2021.
“Gold Bar is located in northeastern Nevada on the Cortez trend about 25 miles south of Nevada Gold Mines’ large Cortez Hills mine and currently has a six-year mine life. Production started in 2019, and we faced some challenges in 2020. Those issues have now been resolved. Production costs/oz have been falling and are expected to decrease further going forward.”
Rob McEwen, Chairman and Chief Owner, McEwen Mining
The creation of the NGM complex has not been the only milestone on Nevada’s M&A front. In January 2022, Calibre Mining completed the acquisition of Fiore Gold. As a result of this arrangement, Calibre acquired a 100% interest in Fiore’s operating Pan Gold Mine, adjacent advanced-stage Gold Rock Project and the past producing Illipah Gold Project in Nevada, as well as the Golden Eagle project in Washington State.With this transaction, the Pan heap leach gold mine will bring an immediate increase to Calibre’s production and cash flow and provide significant exploration potential.
Nevada’s landscape has also changed considerably thanks to US-focused gold miner i-80 Gold Corp. In October 2021, the company completed an asset exchange agreement with NGM, as part of their comprehensive plan to create a major mining complex in Nevada. Under the agreement, i-80 Gold acquired the Lone Tree and Buffalo Mountain gold deposits from NGM, as well as certain processing infrastructure, including an autoclave. In exchange, they gave NGM its 40% equity in the South Arturo property and the assigned option to acquire the adjacent Rodeo Creek exploration property.
The company also signed a definitive membership interest purchase to acquire Ruby Hill mine from affiliates of Waterton Global Resource Management for US$150 million in cash and shares. Commenting on these transactions, i-80’s CEO Ewan Downie said: “These deals will position the company as one of the biggest gold producers in Nevada with the capacity to process refractory and oxide mineralization.”
At present, NGM and First Majestic are the only companies in the state with this type of processing capacity.
Growth through exploration
Encouraged by favorable metals prices, companies in Nevada are currently placing huge emphasis on growth through brownfield and greenfield exploration to expand their resource base and life of mine.
It did not take long for NGM to find exploration success on its home turf. In addition to the JV’s three Tier 1 assets, Barrick hit a discovery hole just north of its Fourmile project. The new orebody opened the potential for adding one more Tier 1 asset to the three already wrapped into the NGM partnership – Goldstrike/Carline, Cortez and Turquoise Ridge/Twin Creeks – by combining Fourmile with the nearby Goldrush development.
While NGM’s exploration potential is certainly enormous, the company expects to face some obstacles ahead. “Processing will be challenging since the gold is underground and refractory,” Walker warned.
The state’s second largest gold producer, Vancouver-based SSR Mining, has also been focusing on extending the mine-life at the Marigold mine in Valmy. To that end, in 2020 the company invested US$22 million to acquire 8,900 hectares contiguous to its Marigold mine, increasing its land position to 19,800 hectares. The acquisition of the Trenton Canyon and Buffalo Valley properties is expected to increase SSR’s gold resources and add multiple zones of mineralization proximate to the Marigold mine infrastructure. The company’s exploration plans aim to upgrade and expand known mineralization to potentially extend mine-life and access higher margin zones.
Similarly, other producers in the state are dedicating large parts of their budgets to exploration. According to Mitchell Krebs, CEO of Chicago-based Coeur Mining, the company has greatly accelerated its level of investment in exploration over the past five years. “In 2021, we spent close to US$70 million because we recognize that in the mining business if you are not exploring you are going to shrink”, he commented.
Coeur Mining’s Rochester mine, located in northern Nevada, is currently undergoing a transformational project; the infrastructure is being expanded to twice its current capacity. “Production levels of silver will go from 4 million oz/y to 8 million oz/y, and gold from 35,000 oz/y to 80,000 oz/y,” Krebs revealed.
Coeur Mining recently invested US$500 million in building a new leach pad, processing plant and a crusher circuit that will be completed by mid 2023.
In conclusion, even though prospects for precious metals worldwide have become challenging, Nevada still remains one of the most competitive places to look for gold and silver. Faced with the increasing difficulty of finding new deposits, producers and explorers in Nevada today are looking differently at the geology and applying innovative exploration techniques to make the most of the favorable precious metals prices. The state’s mining industry has shown great resilience to the pandemic, and despite having been a notable mining region for 150 years, still holds remarkable potential.
Image courtesy of Barrick Nevada