Uranium miner digs deep in search of a future

ERA's latest venture is a test even for an outfit so used to challenges, writes Peter Ker.

ERA's latest venture is a test even for an outfit so used to challenges, writes Peter Ker.

Rob Atkinson racks his brain for an answer but struggles to think of a company that has blazed a trail quite like this.

After three decades as a major uranium producer in the Top End, Atkinson's 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 miners, 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 taking 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 30 years digging uranium from a small province surrounded on all sides by Kakadu National Park. The company is here at the grace of the local indigenous community, who are reticent to see any more of their land - including ERA's prospective Jabiluka deposit - developed for mining.

The territory's extraordinary wet seasons add another challenge to the mix, forcing Atkinson to play meteorologist, indigenous diplomat, environmental scientist and chief executive. "I've got a bit of everything there," he says. "Because there's such a heavy social side ... you really do feel as though you're putting back in a big way."

More than once, heavy rains have halted production for months at a time and threatened to spill toxic tailings into the environment.

Other operational issues have also caused delays, and the problems continued to unfold against a backdrop of decline in the flagship Ranger open pit, which is 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 languish at $1.15 earlier this year.

Atkinson, though, has offered an answer. Following a 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.

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

More than two years of work will pass before the company decides whether to go ahead with an underground mine. Major shareholder Rio Tinto has reaffirmed its faith, but Atkinson knows not every investor can afford to be so patient.

"We are 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 share sale has 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.

Water worries have been eased by several new pieces of infrastructure. Relations with local indigenous people appear to be improving. Financial worries have also been mitigated, thanks to a $500 million equity raising.

"We now believe the worst is behind ERA and change our investment view from underperform to buy," UBS wrote.

The share price responded strongly, jumping 41 per cent in the space of a fortnight, to $1.72, making it one of the best-performed stocks this month.

It's a good sign but Atkinson knows there is a long way to go. The end 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.

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