The Ekati diamond mine's owner is looking to expand exploration of surrounding areas and extend the mine's life, amid concern among investors for Ekati's future.
Ekati's owner, Dominion Diamond Mines, believes the mine can remain in operation until 2034. However, that estimate relies on an expansion known as the Jay pipe, which the company placed on hold in 2018.
In a presentation to an environmental monitoring group last month, Ekati bosses said 2020 would be "a challenging year" for the mine, even though the mine had "continued the reduction in the workforce."
Cabin Radio understands managers remain optimistic the Jay pipe will eventually see production and said as much at their December meeting with the Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency. Minutes of that meeting have yet to be made publicly available.
Dominion Diamond Mines, which rarely answers requests for comment, did not respond to enquiries from Cabin Radio.
As first reported by CBC, the company has now applied to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board for further exploration of its Glowworm Lake property. The 1,400 square-kilometre property is located to the north and east of the mine.
Exploration of Glowworm Lake could eventually lead to other options that would extend the mine's life. Dominion is working on the development of an open pit in another area, Point Lake. At their most optimistic, managers project the mine could ultimately remain open until 2042 if all existing plans work out.
At Glowworm Lake, the company plans to drill for up to 1,200 tonnes of bulk sample material. The operation would require construction of winter roads and temporary camps.
While Glowworm Lake doesn't have any known kimberlite pipes, Dominion noted in 2017 that there are several pipes in "adjacent areas, pointing to the prospectivity of the region."
The mine operator's assessment that 2020 will be a challenging year comes in the same month that a credit rating report cast doubt on Ekati's long-term prospects.
S&P Global Ratings downgraded the rating of Northwest Acquisitions ULC, a subsidiary of Washington Companies used to complete Washington's purchase of Dominion Diamond Mines in 2017.
In its report, S&P felt the company's ability to generate cash flow beyond 2020 is limited as mine faces declining output. The report stated Point Lake would help to address this decline, but if Jay proceeds it would still be "many years from commercial production and highly capital-intensive."
Exploration is also continuing near the De Beers-owned Gahcho Kué mine, with drilling set to begin in late February under an existing land use permit.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.