Critical year for Alaska mineral exploration
Focus on energy metals grows; gold, silver, and zinc dominate Mining Explorers 2023 - January 18, 2024
Last updated 2/1/2024 at 12:58pm
With Donlin Gold reentering the feasibility study stage, Ambler Metals waiting on the reevaluation of the permit needed for a road to the Ambler Mining District, and an overall lack of investment capital, mineral exploration spending in Alaska dropped during 2023.
While the overall sector was down, there continued to be some bright spots – most notably, a growing interest in Alaska's critical minerals potential.
In July, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded Graphite One Inc. $37.5 million to help complete a feasibility study for an advanced graphite material supply chain that will begin at the Graphite Creek project about 35 miles north of Nome, Alaska.
"This Department of Defense grant underscores our confidence in our strategy to build a 100% U.S.-based advanced graphite supply chain – from mining to refining to recycling," said Graphite One CEO Anthony Huston. "The World Bank Group reports that the production of minerals, including graphite, could increase by nearly 500% by 2050, to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies."
While graphite is the single largest ingredient in the lithium batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage, it is not the only critical energy metal in high demand or being sought in Alaska.
At least two new exploration companies – Alaska Energy Metals Inc. and KoBold Metals scoured promising projects in Alaska's Wrangellia Terrane for deposits enriched with nickel, cobalt, copper, and other metals critical to the energy transition.
"Alaska Energy Metals is positioning itself to supply domestic markets with a source of critical and strategic metals," Alaska Energy Metals President and CEO Greg Beischer said upon the early 2023 launch of AEM.
While energy transition minerals are gaining traction in Alaska, the more traditional metals gold, silver, and zinc continue to be the most sought out across the 49th State.
End of West Susitna Road
The West Susitna area about 100 miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska, is seeing a renewed surge of exploration – partially due its world-class copper and gold potential, and partially due to a proposed 100-mile road needed to realize that potential.
"I am committed to this project and unlocking resources that benefit all Alaskans," Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said.
The largest economic opportunities offered along the planned road that will provide road access west of the Susitna River are expected to come from mineral projects that would stand a better chance of being developed into mines with year-round access.
Nova Minerals Ltd.'s Estelle gold project and U.S. GoldMining Inc.'s adjacent Whistler copper-gold-silver property at the end of the planned 100-mile road are the most advanced mineral projects in the area.
The Whistler property hosts deposits enriched with copper and silver in high demand for clean energy, as well as gold.
Previous exploration companies have outlined more than 1.1 billion pounds of copper, 6.6 million oz of gold, and 24 million oz of silver in deposits on the Whistler property.
U.S. GoldMining, which listed on Nasdaq in 2023 with a US$20 million public offering, launched a drill program in August focused on upgrading and expanding the resource, as well as exploring some of the targets across the wider land package.
"Whistler has not been actively explored in more than a decade, and by utilizing new technology and applying our team's technical expertise, we aim to gain a better understanding of the mineral systems and the potential development options for Whistler," said U.S. GoldMining CEO Tim Smith.
The proposed West Susitna Road would connect Whistler to Port MacKenzie on Alaska's Cook Inlet, a transportation link vital to delivering copper-rich concentrates to global markets.
"Alaska's policy under Governor Dunleavy's administration of investing in critical infrastructure to stimulate growth in Alaska's economy, was an important catalyst for U.S. GoldMining to launch its highly successful IPO in April 2023," said Smith.
The road would also provide access to Estelle, a gold project that does not need to ship concentrates out but would benefit from a year-round and lower-cost means of shipping equipment and supplies in.
According to an early 2023 calculation, Estelle hosts 9.9 million oz of gold in bulk tonnage grade resources.
Nova Minerals, which focused its 2023 exploration on expanding higher-grade gold resources in the RPM and Train areas at the southern end of Estelle, welcomed a summer visit by Alaska's governor.
"We were honored and appreciate Governor Dunleavy taking the time to visit the Estelle Gold project site this week as we continue our exploration and development activities in pursuit of bringing Estelle into commercial production," Nova Minerals CEO Christopher Gerteisen said in August.
In addition to U.S. GoldMining and Nova Minerals, Australia-based Ragusa Minerals Ltd. is exploring the Monte Cristo gold property just east and south of Whistler.
Another critical mineral road
Much like the Whistler project, the critical mineral-rich deposits in the Ambler Mining District require a means of delivering concentrates to market.
A 211-mile road that would connect this metal-rich district in Northwest Alaska to the state's highway system gained federal approval in 2020 only to have the permits pulled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for reevaluation in 2022.
BLM says its reanalysis of the proposed road is necessary to ensure that Alaska Native tribes have been properly consulted and impacts to subsistence activities have been thoroughly evaluated. In October, the federal agency published its finding of the more thorough review in the form of a supplement environmental impact statement.
The federal land manager expects to publish a final SEIS and record of decision on the reevaluated Ambler Road by mid-year.
Arctic, the first UKMP project slated to become a mine, is expected to produce 1.93 billion lb of copper, 2.24 billion lb of zinc, 334.8 million lb of lead, 423,000 ounces of gold, and 36 million oz of silver over an initial 13 years of mining.
With approval of the vital road access back in the hands of federal regulators, Ambler Metals – a 50-50 joint venture between South32 Ltd. and Trilogy Metals Inc. – dialed back exploration at Arctic and their other projects in the Ambler District.
While exploration in the Ambler District was somewhat subdued, the activities that were carried out returned some intriguing results.
In September, Trilogy announced that Bornite, a world-class deposit expected to be the second mine developed by Ambler Metals, hosts significant germanium mineralization alongside the 6.3 billion lb of copper and 88 million lb of cobalt identified there so far.
This includes resampling of core from previous drilling that returned 17.6 meters averaging 24.47% copper and 30 parts per million germanium.
While germanium has long been on the list of critical minerals, the criticality of this semiconductor metal used in computer chips rose significantly with China's August implementation of germanium export restrictions.
"It is imperative that other sources of germanium are developed," said Trilogy Metals President and CEO Tony Giardini.
Beyond Bornite, Trilogy discovered antimony, cobalt, and other critical metals associated with zinc-rich VMS mineralization on its independently owned Helpmejack project about 110 miles southeast of the Arctic Mine project.
In 2022, Trilogy staked 19,520 acres of state claims over the Helpmejack area, plus 12,480 acres of claims over Malemute, a prospective area about 35 miles further east.
"We see upside in the Helpmejack and Malamute claims ... especially as the United States is looking to secure domestic supplies of critical metals," said Giardini.
The only resource drilling in the Ambler District this year was carried out on Valhalla Metals Inc.'s Sun VMS project, which lies about midway between Helpmejack to the east and Arctic to the west.
Lying alongside the route of the proposed Ambler Road, Sun hosts 994.3 million lb of zinc, 295.4 million lb of copper, 26 million oz of silver, and 85,000 oz of gold.
All four of Valhalla's 2023 resource upgrade and expansion holes encountered VMS mineralization and demonstrated the potential to significantly expand the deposit at Sun.
"All we need to do is keep drilling to expand the known resources," said Valhalla Metals Chairman Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse. "If the Biden Administration wants critical metals, we know where to find them!"
Precious metal-rich polymetallic
Alaska projects being explored by Western Alaska Minerals Corp. and HighGold Mining Inc. have many of the same metals as are found in the Ambler District but tend to lean more heavily toward silver and gold.
Over the past two years, Western Alaska's exploration has been focused on the high-grade Waterpump Creek silver deposit on the Illinois Creek property about 300 miles west of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Discovered by Anaconda in 1982, Waterpump Creek hosts 166,000 tons of historical resource averaging 295 g/t silver, 16.1% lead, and 5.5% zinc.
Western Alaska began exploring this deposit toward the end of the 2021 exploration season. WPC21-09, the final hole of 2021, cut 10.5 meters of carbonate replacement deposit mineralization averaging 522 g/t silver, 22.5% zinc, and 14.5% lead.
During the 2022 and 2023 seasons, the company has outlined a roughly 500-meter-long deposit enriched with high-grade silver and zinc.
"Drilling at Waterpump Creek continues to produce impressive assay results that reinforce the high-grade nature of this part of the CRD system," said Western Alaska Minerals CEO Kit Marrs.
HighGold's Johnson Tract project about 125 miles southwest of Anchorage is more gold-rich, with silver, zinc, and copper byproducts.
Since optioning Johnson Tract in 2018, HighGold has focused on upgrading and expanding the historical JT Deposit and exploring some of the exciting but earlier-stage prospects across the property.
According to the most recent calculation, JT Deposit hosts 3.49 million metric tons of indicated resource averaging 5.33 g/t (598,000 oz) gold, 6 g/t (673,000 oz) silver, 5.21% (400.8 million lb) zinc, and 0.59% (43.1 million lb) copper.
Including the value of all the metals, this comes to 1.05 million oz of gold in the indicated resource category.
During 2023, HighGold completed roughly 8,000 meters of drilling at Johnson Tract, the bulk of which targeted the Ellis Zone of the Dry Creek discovery area about 2.5 miles northeast of JT.
The 2022 and 2023 discovery and resource drilling at Ellis Zone has cut gold-rich zones such as 11.9 meters averaging 21.68 g/t gold, 30 g/t silver, 0.61% copper, and 4.2% zinc; and 2.2 meters averaging 49.85 g/t gold, 24.6 g/t silver, 1.5% copper, and 8.4% zinc.
"The Johnson Tract project is synonymous with high-grade gold and these first results of our 2023 drill program do not disappoint," said HighGold Mining CEO Darwin Green.
The 2023 program also cut a more copper dominant zone that includes one hole that cut 2.3 meters averaging 3.55% copper, 0.16 g/t gold, and 0.5 g/t silver.
Fairbanks gold, antimony
While Donlin Gold LLC – a joint venture owned equally by Barrick Gold Corp. and Novagold Resources Inc. – dialed back drilling as it prepares to update the feasibility study for the 39-million-ounce gold project, the famed Tintina Gold Belt where Donlin is found continues to be a top destination for explorers.
At roughly 125 miles wide and spanning the entire breadth of Alaska, the Tintina Gold Belt is a highly mineralized province enriched with gold, silver, copper, and most of the minerals and metals critical to the U.S.
The bulk of the 2023 gold exploration within Alaska's portion of this belt was carried out around Fairbanks.
Freegold Ventures Ltd.'s Golden Summit project about 25 miles north of Alaska's Golden Heart City was elevated to world-class status with a resource calculation completed early last year.
Golden Summit now hosts 407.54 million metric tons of open pit mineable indicated resource averaging 0.92 g/t (12 million oz) gold, plus 282.3 million metric tons of open pit mineable inferred resource averaging 0.85 g/t (7.7 million oz) gold.
Freegold's 2023 drill program focused on upgrading and expanding this nearly 20-million-ounce gold deposit, especially on the northwest side where mineralization is trending toward surface, as well as discovery drilling at the Saddle zone about 4,000 meters east of the resource.
As Freegold begins to consider the viability of establishing a mine at Golden Summit, Felix Gold Ltd. is looking to establish a multi-million-ounce gold deposit with associated antimony on its Treasure Creek property about 12 miles to the west.
Toward this goal, the Australia-based company completed 4,695 meters of drilling in 50 holes during an early season program in 2023 focused in part on establishing a resource at the 1.1-million- to 3.6-million-oz NW Array gold exploration target.
Felix' 2023 drilling also investigated the strong antimony mineralization at Treasure Creek, where 2023 drilling encountered grades as high as 28% antimony alongside the near-surface gold at NW Array.
"The discovery of multiple high-grade antimony zones, near surface, with results up to 28% Sb (stibnite), opens alternative commercialization opportunities for Felix Gold," said Felix Gold Executive Director Joe Webb.
Kinross Alaska strategy
As Freegold and Felix advanced the next generation of gold projects north of Fairbanks, Kinross Alaska celebrated the pouring of the 9 millionth oz of gold at its Fort Knox Mine in the area. And with a strategy to process higher-grade ore from satellite deposits in play, the iconic gold operation is accelerating toward the 10-million-oz milestone and beyond.
The Kinross Alaska strategy involves leveraging the underutilized mill and tailings storage capacity at Fort Knox to process higher-grade ore from projects within a roughly 300-mile radius of the Interior Alaska operation.
In August, Kinross broke ground at Manh Choh, a satellite project about 250 miles southeast of Fort Knox that will feed high-grade ore to the Kinross Alaska mill.
Being advanced by a joint venture between Kinross (70%) and Contango Ore Inc. (30%), Manh Choh is expected to produce roughly 1 million gold-equivalent oz over an initial 4.5 years of mining to begin this year.
This operation is based on 3.9 million metric tons of proven and probable reserves averaging 7.88 g/t (998,000 oz) gold and 13.6 g/t (1.7 million oz) silver.
With reserve grades an order of magnitude higher than the ore currently being fed into the mill, annual gold production at Fort Knox is expected to jump to 400,000 oz with the Manh Choh feedstock.
As mining ramps up at Manh Choh, Contango continues to build high-grade gold resources in anticipation of a future mine at Lucky Shot.
Located 112 road miles north of Anchorage, Lucky Shot encompasses three pre-World War II era underground mines – Colman, Lucky Shot, and War Baby – which produced gold from a high-grade vein system during mining that extended from 1922 until being shut down by the federal War Production Board in 1942.
Since acquiring the project in 2021, Contango has been working toward establishing a resource that would support a modern high-grade gold mine at Lucky Shot. This includes the rehabilitation and extension of the historical Enserch tunnel, which served as a platform for a 29-hole drill program the company carried out at the project in 2022.
According to calculations completed early in 2023, Lucky Shot hosts 226,963 metric tons of indicated resource averaging 14.5 g/t (105,620 oz) gold and 82,058 metric tons of inferred resource averaging 9.5 g/t (25,110 oz) gold.
Contango ORE President and CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse says the company's first objective at Lucky Shot is "to identify 400,000 to 500,000 ounces of gold resource that we can then develop a mine plan around."
Toward this goal, the company plans to carry out a roughly 12,000-meter underground drill program at Lucky Shot this year.
The place to be
The 2023 exploration activities along the Southeast Alaska Panhandle, which spanned the gamut from new discoveries to building reserves at operational mines, all had one thing in common – high-grades.
While Hecla Mining Company's Greens Creek Mine near Juneau is best known for producing around 10 million oz of silver annually from high-grade reserves, this underground operation also produces 50,000 oz of gold, 100 million lb of zinc, and 40 million lb of lead per year.
President and CEO Phillips Baker, Jr. says Greens Creek continues to set the bar when it comes to the quality of assets Hecla seeks – long reserve life, high-grade, low-cost, consistent performance, and significant exploration potential.
The underground mine entered 2023 with 10.7 million tons of proven and probable reserves averaging 10.9 oz/ton (116.9 million oz) of silver, 0.09 oz/t (935,000 oz) gold, 6.5% (1.39 billion lb) zinc, and 2.5% (529.5 million lb) lead.
This is enough reserves for roughly a decade of operation and Hecla continues to find more high-grade material to add into resources and reserves at Greens Creek.
At the Kensington Mine about 45 miles to the northeast, Coeur Mining Inc. is in the midst of a roughly $80 million exploration program focused on extending the life of this high-grade gold operation beyond 2030.
"Kensington's successful mine life extensions and growing zone continuity highlight the compelling expected returns on investment that can be generated over time by sustaining our commitment to targeted and cost-effective brownfields exploration," said Coeur Mining President and CEO Mitchell Krebs.
As the producers build reserves, exploration companies are advancing the next generation of Southeast Alaska mines. Of these, the Palmer volcanogenic massive sulfide project near Haines is the furthest along.
Being advanced by a joint venture between Dowa Metals & Mining Company Ltd. and American Pacific Mining Corp., the main deposit at Palmer hosts enough resources to support an operation capable of producing 1.07 billion lb of zinc, 196 million lb of copper, 18 million oz of silver, and 91,000 oz of gold over an initial 11 years of mining.
During 2023, American Pacific carried out a US$25.3 million program funded by Dowa that included resource upgrade drilling and other activities to support feasibility-level studies for developing a mine at Palmer, as well as exploration across the wider property.
"The regional exploration upside and potential for additional discoveries is considered excellent at Palmer," said American Pacific Mining CEO Warwick Smith.
The potential for Southeast Alaska discoveries extends along the entire panhandle, as Blackwolf Copper and Gold Ltd. is demonstrating at its properties near Hyder.
This year, Blackwolf focused in on Cantoo, a gold-silver-copper discovery property that is adjacent to Ascot Resources Ltd.'s Premier gold-silver mine in British Columbia's Golden Triangle.
Surface sampling at Cantoo has returned grades as high as 30.4 g/t gold, 2,860 g/t silver, and 5.8% copper.
Blackwolf's maiden drill program on this property has unveiled the potential for a large porphyry body underlying the high-grade mineralization found on surface.
"We are pleasantly surprised encountering indications of a porphyry system at Cantoo, although it was not unexpected given the history of the area and proximity to the Premier mine," said Blackwolf CEO Morgan Lekstrom.
This is an indicator that BC's Golden Triangle may need to be expanded to cover the interrelated gold-silver-copper systems that extend into Alaska and likely the Yukon.
Given the shared geology and history, Baker believes that Alaska, BC, and the Yukon are more than the sum of their parts and is encouraging more cooperation between these underdeveloped mineral-rich jurisdictions.
"This is the place to be, really in the world," the Hecla Mining CEO said. "This is the place where there is a real opportunity to work together."