Good times in the mining sector, eh? The Gold and Silver Index (XAU) is holding steady above 120, having reached a high above 156 in January, a level it had not seen since September 18, 1987. The spot uranium price is higher than it’s been since January 1980. Crude oil? Filling up your gas tank should remind you that oil prices are still painfully high. So all of this must mean mining companies are thrilled with their good fortune? WRONG! There’s a snowballing crisis in the mining sector, which has been kept off the typical investor’s radar screen. This new emergency could drive commodity prices to even higher levels over the coming months, and possibly until the end of the decade.
The two-decade long bear market drove many geologists, and other qualified technicians, out of the mining sector. Drilling companies went bankrupt. Even with the recent explosion of activity in the mining sector, exploration in the sector is less than one-third of its peak in 1981, when more than 5,500 drill rigs were running.
The mining sector’s labor and drill rig shortage has gone past the “we’re in a crisis” stage. Without qualified geological staff and drill rigs for exploration and development programs, companies may fail to get their projects online fast enough to satisfy the worldwide demand for their metals, whether it is gold, silver, copper, or uranium. The Baker Hughes North American rotary rig count is a good barometer of how strongly the commodities boom has impacted the sector. In 1999, the U.S. and Canadian drill rig count reached its nadir of 488. On March 17th, the number stood at 1546 and climbing. Over the past seven years, the count jumped 316 percent. Compared to a year ago, the North American Rotary Rig Count is up by nearly 20 percent. Internationally, the same rig count rose almost 60 percent.
During the course of our three-month investigation, we found the labor and equipment shortage applied not only to uranium but also to coal, oil and gas, coal bed methane and precious metals exploration. Ed Calvert, who runs Nucor Drilling Inc in Wyoming, exclaimed, “There just aren’t any rigs available in the U.S. You may find one, but it’s a problem finding the right rig at the right time.” His company began searching for a drill rig in September for drilling scheduled to commence June 1st. Calvert explained that the big oil companies had signed up rig contracts so they wouldn’t get caught short, adding, “Whether the rigs are being used daily or not, they are paying the fees to hold them.”
Vancouver-based Max Resources announced in early January of this year they had received permits to drill on their Thomas Mountain uranium prospect in Utah. They hoped to drill in late January, depending upon drill rig availability. We interviewed the company’s uranium geologist Clancy Wendt, who complained in early February, “I thought I had a rig lined up. Now we have no idea when we will get a rig.” Max Resources recently announced it planned to start drilling on or about the middle of March. Norman Burmeister planned more wisely, announcing in mid January Kilgore Minerals would drill the company’s Idaho gold property in July. But Burmeister got stumped in moving his uranium property’s permitting process forward, “I am still trying to find an archaeologist for my Nevada property. They just aren’t available.” Until he finishes that step of the permitting process, Burmeister can’t lock up a drill contractor to help delineate his uranium prospect.
The drill rig shortage pales when compared to the frighteningly tight labor market in the mining sector. According to the February 2006 Employment Situation Summary, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, “Mining continued its upward trend in February, adding 5,000 jobs.” Cynthia Pomeroy, Director of Wyoming’s Department of Employment confirmed the crisis, “There is definitely a labor shortage.”
Matt Grant, assistant director of the Wyoming Mining Association adamantly announced, “There are 800 direct job openings in the mining business that could be filled today.” He quickly noted another 2400 indirect jobs to service the mining industry remain empty, begging for bodies to satisfy those positions. Starting geologists make between $35,000 and $50,000 annually. Top geologists command $200,000 and higher. Mining consultants get $800-1000/day. Even day helpers on drill rigs can charge $22/hour or more. Wyoming state and county development associations have attended job fairs in Michigan earnestly trying to fill the growing job vacancy by recruiting laid-off auto workers.
David Michaud, president of TheJobPit.com, finds jobs for geologists, metallurgists and others in the mining sector. A mining engineer and consulting metallurgist, having graduated from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and until recently the operations manager for Corriente Resources in Ecuador, he began his internet employment agency for the mining sector because the demand was overwhelming. “Headhunters who have been around for twenty years say they’ve never seen a market like this,” Michaud stressed. “For the last ten years, the mining industry fed mining graduates to the wolves. Now they need them. All are busy with no takers to those far away places.” Michaud lambasted the mining companies for their lack of foresight, “Mining companies have to expect the demand for professionals, such as production geologists, will go up with the price of metals. There were no jobs for the past eight years.” He added, “It takes two to five years to train them.”
For example, Michaud is desperately trying to fill a South American mining company’s job opening for an experienced metallurgist. “Free housing, two cars, four weeks off annually, two plane tickets, basically no living expenses, and a salary starting at US$150, 000,” Michaud sadly explained because no one has jumped at the offer. “In the field of metallurgy, including mill managers, metallurgical engineers, techs and operators, about 150 new jobs are offered each month.” Only about one-half will be filled. Michaud warned the copper mining companies were in especially dire straits to fill new job openings.
Uranium Sector Struggling to Keep with Demand
The U.S. Energy Information Administration announced in its most recently published annual report, “The U.S. uranium production industry initiated a turnaround in 2004. All U.S. uranium drilling, mining, production, and employment activities increased for the first time since 1998. More companies conducted exploration and development drilling than in the prior 2 years. Employment in the U.S. uranium production industry totaled 420 person-years, an increase of 31 percent from the 2003 total. Wyoming accounted for 33 percent of the total 2004 employment, while Colorado and Texas employment almost tripled since 2003. Overall, $86.9 million went to drilling, production, land, exploration, reclamation and restoration activities in 2004.” And that was in 2004. Imagine what the employment snapshot looks like today?
While the spot uranium price continues rising, exploration companies may find it harder to recruit veteran uranium geologists, to sign contracts for drill rigs, and to operate those rigs. Nucor’s Calvert laughed, “Finding and keeping employees is definitely a problem.” Michaud explained, “Finding a metallurgist is hard enough. Finding one with uranium experience is almost impossible.” David Miller, president of Strathmore Minerals, lamented, “Expertise in the uranium industry started with geologists who made discoveries in the late 1940s through the late 1970s. They trained the next generation, which coincided with the 1970s uranium boom. That boom was short lived and fizzled out by 1981. A very small number of professionals continued in the uranium industry, during the twenty-year bear market. Now that the number of uranium companies has skyrocketed to more than 420, there is a potentially catastrophic shortage of uranium expertise.” The generation gap has come to haunt the industry.
What’s the solution? Many, such as Michaud, believe, “Retired baby boomers are coming out of retirement to fill the generational gap and ride their last metal rush into the sunset.”
Bloomberg News ran a story on December 8th discussing developments in the oil sector, “U.S. producers and contractors such as Ryder Scott, which assesses drilling projects and oil and natural-gas reserves, are working harder to keep their oldest employees and recruit college graduates because there aren’t enough new engineers to go around. Engineers who help find petroleum deposits are in demand…”
UR-Energy Chief Executive William Boberg showed off the company’s recent hire, Dawn Schippe, during our tour of his offices, “She’s an engineering graduate of the Colorado School of Mines,” he said. “Her experience in uranium is now two weeks.” Others in his company have decades of uranium experience, but are three times Dawn’s age.
Aging talent has found its way back into the uranium sector. Aging geologists such as Dr. Boen Tan, who helped discover two of the Key Lake uranium deposits in Canada’s uranium-rich Athabasca Basin in the early 1970s, is now helping Forum Development explore for new uranium deposits at its Costigan Lake, Key Lake Road and Maurice Point projects in Athabasca. Uranerz Energy’s entire advisory board consists of former Uranerz professionals, including top geologists, Dr. Franz Dahlkamp and Dr. Gerhard Ruhrmann. Respectively, they have 45 and nearly 30 years experience in the sector. Strathmore Minerals geological team includes former Pathfinder Mines employees, a subsidiary of Cogema, including board member Dieter Krewedl, President David Miller, and vice president of technical services, John DeJoia. Some of these companies bring more than 200 years of experience, collectively, to their new ventures. But without sufficient new mining school graduates to mentor under them, future exploration and development may become stalled. Michaud announced a chilling observation, “Annually, Canadian universities produce less than 10 new metallurgical engineers.”
What the Future Holds
What is troubling about the uranium market, in particular, is that the soaring spot uranium price shows no signs of abating. The crisis comes at a time when President Bush announced his nuclear initiative, as more U.S. utilities plan to add to the country’s nuclear fleet, and as China and India clamor for a reliable source of uranium to fuel their aggressive nuclear energy programs. Without uranium for those reactors, the power plants won’t produce the electricity required to meet their demand. As an aside, uranium mining is the stage in the nuclear fuel cycle where the environmentalist fanatics are baring their teeth. This past November, an office manager at Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center, an anti-nuclear activist group reportedly funded by Mott’s Applesauce and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, told us when we went undercover, “We want to stop the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, which is uranium mining.”
Don’t say the warnings weren’t made well in advance. At the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Symposium in 2004, Dr Moukhtar Dzhakishev, a Russian physicist and a former deputy minister of energy and mineral resources, presented his conclusions, “Firstly, natural uranium mining capacities cannot satisfy reactor requirements. Secondly, accumulated uranium inventories will be exhausted sooner or later. Thirdly, the spot price does not reflect the actual problems and, on the contrary, is capable of misleading all of us about the urgency of investments to be made in the development of new mining facilities.”
In his speech, Dr. Dzhakishev emphasized to the WNA, “Judging by these facts, the conclusion is evident: one day nuclear power plants will face a natural uranium shortage and it is not necessary to be a prophet to foresee this. It is clear today that the key to the solution of the major problems of the uranium market lies with the development of the potential of the uranium producers.”
This past August, Angela Jameson reported in the online version of The London Times, “A GLOBAL shortage of uranium could jeopardise plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain… a recent report by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada said that there was likely to be a 45,000-tonne shortage of uranium in the next decade, largely because of growing Chinese demand for the metal.”
The upward spiral of the commodities boom is racing ahead at full speed. Depending upon whom you talk to, the labor and drill rig shortage is either very bad or worse than you can possibly imagine. If there are commodity inventory shortages right now, what happens by the end of this year, or later this decade, if current exploration efforts get grounded because companies lack the trained personnel, the proper equipment and the expertise to explore and/or develop their properties? You can’t run a drill rig if you can’t get your hands on one. You can’t drill the property if you can’t find drillers to run the rig. While commodities prices soar to levels not seen in twenty or thirty years, the tight labor and equipment market could ratchet prices to much higher levels. And junior uranium development companies, with proven pounds-in-the-ground assets, should become sought-after acquisition targets by those who have the staff and drill rigs to bring the projects online.
For investors, the labor and drill rig shortage has a silver lining. As inventories dwindle lower, commodity prices will continue rising. For junior uranium investors, this might someday be realized as the “hidden reason” why spot uranium prices continued rising past $40/pound. If you don’t drill for the commodity, you can’t find it and develop it. This strengthens the case for $50/pound uranium in the near future. Now we understand why Strathmore Minerals’ David Miller warned us in November, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see uranium prices double again.”