Alice Queen ('AQX') is a junior exploration company that holds 3 projects: 1 gold development project in the Horn Island gold deposit, and 2 very prospective exploration projects in the Horn Island JV and the Lachlan Fold projects.
Horn Island gold deposit
AQX has defined a shallow, open pittable inferred resource of 492,000 ozs (7.96 Mt @ 1.9g/t), with a maximum depth of 250m. Horn Island has significant existing infrastructure in place including a deep water port, a domestic airport, and existing freshwater supply. It also is the logistical hub of the Torres Strait, being easily accessible from the mainland. Being a brownfield operation, it's likely that the company could potentially utilise some remnants of the old mining operations.
As part of our evaluation process for Horn Island, we made a number of assumptions to determine what a potential mining operation may look like. Readers should note that this is purely a hypothetical exercise, especially given the current inferred nature of the deposit.Hypothetical Project Assumptions and Parameters:
- 80% of inferred JORC resources converted to Indicated or better status.
- 1 Million tonne per annum plant capacity
- LOM of ~6.5 years
- Average gold production per annum: ~56k oz
- Gold price: AUD$2,000/oz
- Recovery rate of 93%
- Initial Capex: $60 million
- All-in Sustaining Cost: ~AUD$1,200/oz
- Discount rate: 8%
- NPV using assumptions above: ~$160 million
We consider our assumptions reasonably conservative; for example, the company has disclosed that metallurgical recoveries from the ore are ~98% whereas we have assumed a lower figure of 93%. We also note that our assumptions are blunt, and do not consider any optimisation studies generally conducted as part of a Bankable Feasibility Study ('BFS') process.
As the company progresses the development of the deposit via additional infill drilling to upgrade the resource estimate to Indicated or better, we expect further value accretion. We expect that the company will conduct further studies on the deposit to a BFS standard. We estimate it will cost the company approximately $3.5-4.5 million to conduct the necessary works and studies to deliver a BFS for the deposit and take approximately 12-18 months to complete. This expenditure should provide significant value add for shareholders.
Having examined a large number of gold deposits, we consider inferred resources that have a higher degree of uncertainty, to be fairly valued at a range between 2.5-3.5% of in-ground value relative to the spot price for shallow deposits which are sub-250m in depth. This provides us a range between $55 and $77 per inferred ounce at a gold spot price of AUD$2,200. As such we consider that as a raw, undeveloped project the Horn Island gold deposit would be worth ~$30 million, possibly more considering the existing infrastructure in place.
Horn Island JV
St Barbara ('SBM') a mid-tier gold miner has entered into a JV with the right to earn 70% of the Horn Island Exploration Project, encompassing Horn Island and Prince of Wales Island, by sole funding $4 million over 36 months. The agreement specifically excludes the Horn Island gold deposit as well as the existing critical infrastructure and sites necessary to begin a mining operation. SBM has been granted an option to acquire a 70% in these areas for 'fair value'. SBM may withdraw after committing a minimum amount of $500,000 within the first 12 months of the JV.
AQX has agreed not to commence mining operations at the Horn Island gold deposit during the term of the JV. However, further progressing the project to the completion of a BFS is allowed. AQX will manage SBM's ground operations on Horn Island for a fee under a services agreement.
The JV will be targeting Intrusion Related Gold System (IRGS) deposits. Out of a total discovered gold endowment in Northern Queensland of ~40 million ozs ('Mozs'), over 19 Mozs are contained within IRGS deposits in this region. It is believed that IRGS deposits are generated by the collision of major tectonic plates and are focused mainly on the Ring of Fire region around the Pacific Rim which hosts a gold endowment of over 100 Mozs. This proliferation extends into Queensland which was a tectonically active region 200 million years ago. We note that IRGS deposits are on average larger than other types of gold-bearing systems; providing a potentially large reward for successful explorers. The sweet spot in terms of exploration for IRGS deposits is in the 200-500m depth range, where AQX has barely explored.
IRGS deposits can be discovered using a systematic approach including but not limited to: geochemical sampling, reverse magnetic analysis, interpretation of drill samples & multi-element metal zoning. We note that AQX has performed significant analysis works to date, performed by world-class technical consultants in Scott Halley (geochemistry), Gregg Morrison (IRGS specialist) and Ben McCormack (structural geology). We note that should an IRG system be proven to exist on Horn Island, Prince of Wales Island to the immediate west will represent an outstanding greenfield opportunity for the joint venture being 3 times as large within a similar geological setting.
Horn Island Conclusion
We note that the Horn Island JV agreement, allows SBM to acquire a 70% interest in the Horn Island gold deposit and associated infrastructure for 'fair value'. According to our research, recent transactions for commodity projects at the BFS stage have ranged between 40-70% of NPV8 value depending on various factors including capital requirements, depth of resource, commodity type etc.
As such, this may result in a significant bullet payment made to AQX, of an amount above the company's current market capitalisation, should SBM exercise this right and assuming AQX has completed a BFS.
Should SBM withdraw from the JV at any time, AQX will remain well placed to deliver the project in their own right having conducted the studies necessary to obtain project finance.
In summary, we believe that the Horn Island JV has the potential to deliver a multi-million-ounce resource in time, at depth. We believe the fact that SBM, within the JV agreement, restrains AQX from initiating a small scale mining operation is telling. We note that the company's discovery cost per oz is exceptional at under $20/oz, relative to the industry average of circa $30/oz. We believe this reflects the genuinely under-explored nature of Horn Island as well as the significant and thorough geological analysis the company conducts prior to major drilling works.
NSW Lachlan Fold Projects
AQX hold 4 exploration tenements that encompass the entire northern part of the Molong Volcanic Belt, on-trend with the globally significant Cadia-Ridgeway mine operated by Newcrest ('NCM'). The area is prospective for large scale Au/Cu porphyry deposits.
NCM entered into an exploration JV with AQX in 2017 covering some of these tenements. Under the terms of the prior JV agreement, NCM could earn up to an 80% interest in the Mendooran tenements over 9 years by spending $10 million. 3 diamond core holes were drilled under NCM JV, with no material results disclosed. We note that the NCM JV targeted the most accessible prospects, rather than the best prospects which lie within a State Conservation Area, where special permits are required. These permits were not in place for the term of the JV, although AQX has recently disclosed in their latest presentation that a land access agreement is near, with permission expected to be granted by the end of the calendar year.
NCM terminated the JV however, we consider this to be positive. Our preference when investing in junior explorers is that it retains a majority stake in their most prospective ground when engaging in a JV. This ensures that shareholders receive the appropriate benefit in the case of success. We have found that exploration projects can be 'lost' in the bureaucracy of a larger company, so we prefer companies that retain material exposure and control over their core prospects. We also noted that the Yarindury tenement was acquired after the NCM JV was executed, so was not included in the JV. The sedimentary cover in this tenement is shallower at around 200m depth, so believe that AQX can explore this tenement in their own right. AQX has disclosed that drilling will commence in the next couple of weeks on the northern targets at Yarindury.
Alkane's recent discovery strike at Boda was the best porphyry exploration discovery hole in the Lachlan Fold Belt outside the Cadia, Cowal and North Parkes mines in the last 20 years; according to John Holliday, the discoverer of the world-class Cadia deposit and a technical consultant to AQX. The discovery strike of 502m @ 0.48g/t Au, 0.20% Cu from 211 metres in depth, ended in strong mineralisation to the end of hole. We believe this is exceptionally significant. The strike is exceptionally gold rich relative to other porphyry deposits, and we are encouraged by the fact that the copper grade appears to increase at depth. Importantly, a clear high-grade zone of approximately 361m of over 1g/t exists between 228m and 589m intervals. To put it into context, this high grade zone of strike was superior to the Cadia Hill discovery hole which struck 243m @ 1.21g/t Au. A lot more work needs to be conducted by Alkane to prove that a large deposit exists, but the potential for a large, commercial discovery is clear.
Large porphyry deposits are generally clustered, typified by the monstrous Cadia-Ridgeway complex which spans almost 20 sq km and enjoys a rich mineral endowment of 38 Mozs of Au & 8.3 Mt of Cu. With Yarindury only 700 metres away from Boda's discovery hole, we believe that there is very strong potential that the mineralisation that Alkane discovered at Boda, may extend onto the Yarindury tenement. Whilst still early days, we believe that the strike at Boda has added immense value to AQX's Lachlan Fold tenements and significantly increased the odds that AQX can perhaps make their own discovery.
We consider the upside potential and leverage to success within these tenements to be extremely large.
We consider that Alice Queen hold 3 very attractive projects: 1 gold development project in the Horn Island gold deposit and 2 very prospective exploration projects in the Horn Island JV and the Lachlan Fold projects.
It is our opinion that the company's value is strongly underpinned by the existing gold deposit on Horn Island, which we consider in isolation to be worth the company's current market capitalisation of ~$30 million. We believe the market is ignoring the considerable potential upside from both the Horn Island JV and the Lachlan Fold projects. Successful exploration by the Horn Island JV will result in a clear and substantial monetisation event via SBM's right to purchase 70% of the Horn Island deposit. Successful exploration at the Lachlan Gold projects will result in enormous value creation for shareholders.
As such, we view Alice Queen as an attractive investment opportunity given the large, asymmetric potential upside balanced by what we perceive as limited downside.
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Disclaimer: Datt Capital currently holds shares in AQX
AUD$2,000/oz is quite an assumption!
Thank you for your comment Cecilia. Note that the current gold spot price is about AUD$2,235. We have seen short term future price projections from a number of credible investors supporting a strong gold price in Australian dollars going forward. We broadly agree given: 1) Gold is a traditional 'flight to safety' asset. Given the current geopolitical environment we anticipate the gold price will be well supported at present levels. 2) Gold is priced in US dollars, which is another traditional 'flight to safety' asset. 3) If the gold price and US Dollar strengthen, this provides a massive tailwind for Australian gold producers whose costs are incurred in Australian dollars.
thanks emanuel - a great article, keep 'em coming. junior gold space has certainly been interesting recently (EAR, EGA etc). ps - your prior article on EAR was great too.
Thanks Mr T for the kind comments, much appreciated