Commodity Corner

Views on commodities and energy

Barrick’s El Dorado?

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glacier1 Despite their calm assurances, executives at the world’s biggest gold miner Barrick Gold must be at their wits’ end over their stalled Pascua Lama project.

    For two years, Argentine and Chilean officials have been bickering over how to share the lucrative tax proceeds from the cross-border mine, which has been poised for construction to start since late 2006.
    One government official after another  has suggested the green light is imminent. But after making some impatient noises last year, Barrick seems to be biting its lip — resolved for an even longer wait.
    When Barrick reported fourth-quarter results last week, new Chief Executive Aaron Regent put on a brave face about the delay, but his pledge to give an update on the progress in the second quarter suggested a solution is still some way off.
    It is ironic that a diplomatic spat over sharing the spoils of the mine has put the ambitious and controversial project on ice.
    Pascua Lama straddles a freezing, inhospitable spot high in the Andes and faced a storm of protest from Chilean environmentalists before President Michelle Bachelet finally gave it the go-ahead.
    Late last year, an Argentine law protecting Andean glaciers looked like it might be the nail in Pascua Lama’s coffin until a surprise presidential veto kept it off the statute books.
    But none of that matters while the tax row drags on, and the harsh Andean winters mean construction is unlikely to be able to start now until September 2009 at the earliest.
    Company officials have declined to say how much it is costing to maintain the site. Some industry analysts have even hinted Barrick might abandon it altogether.
    But it will take a lot more for the Canadians to lose interest in Pascua Lama. One of the world’s largest untapped gold fields, the site will become even more appealing as prices for the metal nudge up to above $1,000 per ounce again.