Kakadu's miner for all seasons

ERA's chief has his hands full as he strives to create a future for the company.

ERA's chief has his hands full as he strives to create a future for the company.

ROB Atkinson wracks his brain for an answer, but struggles to think of a company that's blazed a trail quite like this.

After three decades as a major uranium producer in Australia's top end, Atkinson's company Energy Resources of Australia is about to fill in its massive open pit and return the landscape to something resembling the nearby Kakadu National Park.

In a reversal of the typical path taken by mining companies, ERA is about to go from producer to explorer, gambling its future on the viability of a deposit deep beneath its existing operations.

''I've been in mining nearly 25 years and I think we are fairly unique,'' Atkinson said, when asked if he was sourcing guidance for ERA's next chapter from some external source.

But examples to follow have always been thin on the ground for a company that exists within a fragile framework of environmental rules, indigenous agreements and, in true Northern Territory style, crocodile safety precautions.

ERA has spent the past 30 years digging uranium from a small province surrounded on all sides by Kakadu National Park.

The company operates here at the grace of the indigenous community, which has long been reluctant to see any more of its land developed for mining.

The NT's extraordinary wet seasons add another challenge, forcing Atkinson to play meteorologist, indigenous diplomat, environmental scientist and chief executive all at once.

Not so long ago, that combination of challenges seemed to have ERA in checkmate.

On more than one occasion, heavy rains halted production for months at a time and threatened to spill toxic tailings into the nearby environment.

Other operational problems also caused delays, and they unfolded against a backdrop of decline in the company's flagship Ranger open pit, now reaching the end of its working life.

From a share price of $18.22 in May 2009, the stock lost more than 90 per cent of its value to be languishing at $1.15 earlier this year, with the company's future being seriously questioned.

Atkinson, though, has offered an answer.

After an extensive review of the business, the keen golfer from the Scottish town of St Mirren oversaw the release of a plan for the company's future late last year.

Known as the ''Ranger 3 Deeps'' project, ERA will explore a major deposit deep below its existing pit, which will soon be closed for business, leaving only stockpiles of uranium to be processed.

Put simply, ERA is transitioning from major producer to hopeful explorer, though the tag doesn't sit entirely comfortably with Atkinson.

''We are very different from an explorer in that we've got a plant, a power station, an airport, and a town. We've got all the facilities already built plus we are one of the biggest companies in the Northern Territory, so we've got those influences which help us,'' he said.

But the wait will be long. More than two years of exploratory and feasibility work will pass before the company decides whether to go ahead with an underground mine.

As Macquarie Bank noted recently, that's a long time for investors to hold a stock without any clear factor to drive the share price.

Major shareholder Rio Tinto has reaffirmed its faith, but Atkinson knows not every investor can afford to be so patient.

''We are certainly not going to be a company for the next couple of years that can deliver huge returns,'' he said. ''I've got to be sensitive to other people's needs and realise that they are wanting a return, but at ERA it's going to take a little bit longer.''

The monster market sell-down over recent years has further complicated matters by pulling the stock beneath the investment grades held by many big institutions.

Yet there are signs that Atkinson might be capable of turning the ship around.

Earlier this month, two investment banks - UBS and Merrill Lynch - raised ERA's investment rating, with Merrill bestowing a ''buy'' recommendation.

Explaining the change, Merrill's Peter O'Connor said there was reason to believe the main problems that had weighed on ERA in recent years were closer to being resolved.

Water worries have been mitigated by several new pieces of infrastructure, and in any case will be less important under a future without an open pit.

Relations with local indigenous people also appear to be improving. The local Mirarr people recently agreed to issue a joint press release with ERA, and they have been cheered by ERA's decision to avoid a heap-leaching option on site. A new mining agreement between the two parties is expected before June.

Financial worries have also been mitigated, thanks to a $500 million equity raising that will cover the cost of various items, including the next two years of exploration work.

''We now believe the worst is behind ERA and change our investment view from 'underperform' to 'buy','' O'Connor wrote, barely a day before UBS improved the stock from sell to neutral.

The shares responded strongly, jumping 41 per cent in a fortnight, from $1.22 to $1.72, making it one of the best-performed stocks in April.

The goal of turning ERA into an underground miner won't come to fruition before late 2015, and there will be myriad environmental, indigenous, government and company approvals to satisfy before then.

But Atkinson says that's what makes his job great.

''We cannot be just a mining company, we need to be more than a mining company and that's why we continuously talk about the benefits we bring,'' he said.

Asked how he juggles such competing interests, Atkinson replies with a simple mantra: ''I absolutely believe in doing the right thing. If there are doubts in your mind as to whether something is the right thing to do then typically it is not.''

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