Developing the exciting Ambler District
Ambler Metals CEO Ramzi Fawaz caps impressive career by leading company developing Alaska's Ambler Mining District North of 60 Mining News – January 1, 2021
Last updated 1/18/2021 at 12:32pm
North of 60 Mining News recently spoke with Ramzi Fawaz, president and CEO of Ambler Metals LLC, a 50-50 joint venture between South32 Ltd. and Trilogy Metals Inc. to develop the rich mineral resources at the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects in Alaska.
In a candid conversation, Fawaz talks about what attracted him to Ambler Metals; the company's Alaska-based team and partnerships; the strategy for developing Arctic Mine and the other rich metals deposits at the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects; and details on the objectives of Ambler Metals' budgeted US$27 million program to advance this strategy during 2021.
Q. What attracted you to take on the role of president and CEO of Ambler Metals?
A. It is a great opportunity to cap my career – doing something unique and exciting like leading a new company and developing a substantive mining district in Alaska. Not having done something similar before, it was a unique opportunity for me to take on. In addition to that, my wife and I always wanted to go to Alaska and so that complimented the decision and made it easier for us.
Q. I understand that you have relocated to Anchorage, where the Ambler Metals office is located. When did you move to Alaska and what do you and your family think about the state so far?
A.We moved up in September, so just three months ago now. Alaska is proving to be everything they said it would be – fascinating landscape, beautiful nature, and outdoor living, superb views, friendly people, and close-knit communities – we love that.
Q. What is the significance of Ambler Metals establishing its office in Anchorage?
A. We are a U.S. Alaska-based company, for sure. We thought long and hard about the location, but Anchorage is the hub of the state's industry, regulators, and to some degree some of the key state government agencies as well. Especially for us now, when we are in the early stages of our projects, it is important to be close to our key stakeholders. Namely, NANA, AIDEA, state agencies and so on. As well as having a presence in Fairbanks, where we have an office and warehouse that is our staging place to go to the site. Later on, we will have a permanent presence in the Upper Kobuk, when we have the project site. We need all three and we are even thinking about having some presence in Kotzebue as well, just to be near the borough and the communities there.
Q. You are joined by Rebecca Donald (vice president of finance) and Kevin Torpy (vice president of operations). Can you tell me a little more about this Alaska-based team and what they bring to Ambler Metals?
A. Rebecca and Kevin are experienced hands at their jobs, and certainly in Alaska, so I am extremely pleased to have them on the team. They bring a lot of knowledge and hands-on experience of doing business here in Alaska. I see evidence of that every day, so I am extremely pleased to have them on the team.
Q. I understand that the technical team from Trilogy Metals has transitioned to Ambler Metals. Can you tell me more about the Ambler Metals technical team and its contribution to the Upper Kobuk Mineral projects moving ahead?
A. We moved about 10 people, mainly technical team, from Trilogy to Ambler Metals. Frankly, without them we would not be able to function properly because it takes years to build up the same expertise this team provides us in the areas of exploration, environmental, permitting, and engineering matters. So, I am really happy about making that transfer from Trilogy to us – it brings continuity, it brings expertise, it saves us time, plus they are really experienced and good at what they do.
Q. How does the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects compare to other assets you were involved with while working for Newmont?
A. From a technical point of view, not much different from various projects I have done at Shell and at Newmont. But I am extremely pleased with the high-grade type of copper deposit we have here at the Arctic Mine, as well as the size and the potential resource of the whole Ambler District.
What is different in this case, and unique to Alaska, is the new and extensive infrastructure required to realize the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects. Also, what is to some degree different is the extent and complexity of the stakeholders one needs to deal with in order to realize this opportunity. From local communities –villagers, tribes, tribe councils, borough, native corporations – to state and federal governments, and not forgetting associations, service providers and NGOs – all have some stakeholding interests in our projects here in Alaska.
Q. Arctic and Bornite are world-class deposits in terms of size and grade, and the larger UKMP hosts dozens of other mineral-rich targets and occurrences. Does it surprise you that the Ambler Mining District remains undeveloped?
A. Yes and no. It takes decades to develop a mine like we are doing at Arctic, let alone a big district like the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects, and that is anywhere in the world. From exploration all the way to having an operating mine takes years and years, so that is no different. I think the added complication here is we need surface access in the form of a road in the north interior of Alaska that is very long and goes through a lot of different properties with different ownerships, including a national preserve park. Understandably, that attracts concerns that we and the state are continually addressing. So, that is different than what I have done before.
Q. With the positive record of decision by federal agencies for the Ambler Road, what are the next steps for advancing this surface access to the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects.
A. A number of things need to happen. We are putting together a funding agreement with AIDEA to secure the funding and management of all the predevelopment activities until an investment decision is made on the access road; then the rights-of-way and permits need to be secured; we need a project team led by a seasoned project manager, that has to be formed and we are busy doing that; we need to do the road design and cost estimates, then we need financing and tolling agreements prepared and ready for signatures; and we must do all this while dealing with lawsuits raised against the federal agencies that approved the ROD (record of decision for the Ambler Access Road).
So, there is a lot of things that need to happen before we get to building the road.
Q. What is Ambler Metals' strategy for developing the district?
A. It is three pillars.
No. 1 is getting ready to responsibly develop the Arctic project by securing the necessary permits and having the Ambler Access Road project well understood for us to make a recommendation to our owners to invest in the project – we have to get that right.
No. 2 is exploring the Ambler District, the VMS belt, to ensure a long mine life that can justify the initial investment, provide long-term life improvement to the communities in the region, create value added investments to the state, and create shareholder value for the owners.
Thirdly, building a company that is anchored by strong foundations in corporate governance, finance, human relations, as well as environmental and sustainability principles.
We have to do all three well to be successful in Alaska.
Q. How important is the partnership with NANA and the consolidation of the Ambler District to that strategy?
A. It is very important. NANA are our partners, and we need them to be with us shoulder-to-shoulder from the initial phases like we are into now – permitting and the access road – to later on when we are into construction and operations. They are good partners to have. They are very experienced, especially from their knowledge and relationship with the Red Dog Mine, so we value that partnership – we work very well with them and we want to continue that partnership for the duration of our projects.
Q. Due to COVID-19, Ambler Metals decided to cancel its 2020 field program at UKMP. Does the lack of a 2020 field program affect the timeline for advancing Arctic and the other projects at UKMP?
A. It certainly delayed things, but our critical path remains the permitting of the Arctic mine, which we intend to start in the second half of 2021.
We are also planning a full field season in 2021 to compensate for what we missed this year, including an extensive exploration program at and around Arctic.
Q. Ambler Metals recently announced a budget of US$27 million for UKMP in 2021. What are the objectives of this program?
A. In addition to exploration, (we will be conducting) the engineering studies and activities that we need to do, and to prepare us for initiating the permitting process.
Additionally, once we have the agreement signed with AIDEA, we will fund separately whatever program we need to do on the access road in 2021 – that is separate from the $27 million.
Q. What field work is being planned at Arctic this year?
A. We are planning 85 days of drilling, with 7,600 meters of drilling at Arctic and 7,000 meters around Arctic. Those regional targets include Sunshine, Center of the Universe, and Cliff-Horse.
We plan to fully utilize the camp at Bornite and will have rigorous COVID protocols in place to protect our people and the communities around us. So, a lot to do in the summer of next year.
Q. How many regional exploration holes are you planning to drill?
A. 16 holes in total. At present, we think four holes at Sunshine; two holes at Center of the Universe; two to four holes at Cliff-Horse; and the rest at other regional targets.
Q. Bornite is the second most advanced project at UKMP. Does Ambler Metals plan to advance a preliminary economic assessment for a mine at Bornite in the near term?
A. We need to improve our full understanding of Bornite. There was a lot of drilling and work done at Bornite before but we as Ambler Metals need to take that knowledge, understand it and fill in the gaps in the coming years.
We don't plan to drill at Bornite in 2021, but in 2022 we plan to do some drilling there and do some geophysical work to understand it better, and to enable us to make our plans on how to proceed.
Q. Is Ambler Metals considering the recovery of cobalt from Bornite?
A. Ultimately, we may do that. There has been a lot of good work done by Trilogy, one of our two owners, which we will take on board, study, and decide what to do with it – given the importance of cobalt.
Q. Is Ambler Metals currently considering developing Bornite as an independent operation with its own mill or as a mine that provides future ore to a mill at Arctic?
A. It will likely be a separate mine because the process configuration is different at the Arctic mill, but that is still work to be done – to see if they potentially can work together or not.
For the Arctic mill, I think it makes more sense to find deposits around Arctic to extend the mine life versus from Bornite. Though, we need to do the work first to see how the two would work together or independently.
Q. Does the success at Sunshine and other volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits with the potential to provide feedstock to a mill at Arctic weigh on the development strategy for Bornite?
A. Eventually we want to do both. We need to find more deposits in the VMS belt to prolong the Arctic mine life.
Q. Unfortunately, COVID-19 protocols and precautions have resulted in the cancellation of mining conferences and other opportunities to introduce yourself to Alaskans and the mining community in the state. Is there anything else you would like to share with North of 60 Mining News' audience that we have not covered today?
A. I am looking forward to making Ambler Metals a successful mining company here in Alaska. Improving the lives of the communities around us is very important; creating fresh investment and growth in Alaska, I think the state needs that; and adding value to our owner's shareholders – and to do it in a responsible and sustainable way for years to come. That is what I am here to do over the next few years, and I am really excited and looking forward to doing it.
Ramzi Fawaz is an engineer with extensive experience leading the development of natural resource projects in the United States and around the globe.
Prior to joining Ambler Metals in September, Fawaz served as senior vice president of projects at Newmont from 2011 until 2019, with responsibility for the development and execution of the global mining company's major gold and copper projects.
Before joining Newmont, Fawaz served as senior vice president operations at Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., where he led all project development, refurbishment and building of the CANDU reactor projects. Prior to Atomic Energy, he was with Royal Dutch Shell, where he worked for 30 years in various senior roles. Among those, Fawaz was responsible for leading the Athabasca Oil Sands Expansion Project in Canada and a major natural gas expansion project in Nigeria.
Throughout his career, Fawaz has engaged extensively with all stakeholders related to major project developments, including executive management, boards of directors, shareholders, local communities, contractors, utilities, and various regional and federal government agencies.