Is Alaska's Pebble Mine the Next Keystone XL?

The push to open a gold-and-copper mine in a rich fishing area has split Alaskans along unusual political lines.

Alaska's Bristol Bay region, adjacent to the Bering Sea in the state's southwest corner, is rich with large and productive reserves of natural resources. One of those resources, the world's largest sockeye-salmon fishery, generates an estimated $1.5 billion annually. The thousands of pristine acres of surrounding wetlands, ponds, and lakes are treasured because there isn't much untouched land left in America. Bristol Bay is also home to a large population of Alaska Natives, whose cultures and lifestyles revolve around the region's "wildness" and especially its salmon. Those are the living, breathing resources of Bristol Bay. And then there are the inorganic resources—oil and gas and mineral deposits, not yet fully explored or exploited but representing a whole lot more wealth than Alaska's accessing now.

A particularly significant deposit of gold, molybdenum, and copper—the largest known untapped copper deposit in the world, in fact—has been identified in Bristol Bay. It's known as the Pebble prospect. A Canadian company called Northern Dynasty Minerals started exploring the area in 2000. In 2007, Northern Dynasty partnered with U.K.-based Anglo American to form the Pebble Partnership and buy the rights to all the minerals in the deposit. The corporation's plans to build the "Pebble Mine" have yet to progress much beyond the idea stage, as the Pebble Partnership website says itself:

What is the Pebble Mine?

Right now, it’s an idea. An idea that could help power our nation’s green energy initiatives. An idea that could bring jobs and infrastructure to Southwest Alaska, helping families remain in their villages and thrive. An idea that all of this is possible in harmony with the environment.

The Pebble Mine has yet to be built because the process of getting state and federal permits for a project of this size is long, but also because it's highly controversial. The mine pits two of Alaska's biggest industries—fishing and mining, both of which are extractive, but only one of which is "sustainable"—against each other in a classic resource war: Weighing gold against salmon is weighing money against nature.

According to one school of thought, it’s a calculation that ought to be left to Alaskans. The Pebble Partnership promises to create jobs and bring in revenue, and the state residents—who will feel the effects either way—should know best whether this would do more long-term good than the protection of salmon stocks and preservation of pristine land. And polls have shown that the majority of Alaskans oppose the mine. An estimated 2.5 billion or more tons of toxic mineral waste would be dredged up at the site; even a tiny proportion of this waste, if leaked into surrounding waters, would chemically alter salmon habitat and threaten the health of the fishery.*

The oft-cited statistic is that “80 percent of Bristol Bay residents” are against it—a number based on data collected between 2007 and 2009, when the Pebble Mine controversy was most fevered. Two independent filmmakers brought attention to the issue with their documentary Red Gold in 2007. The state's most famous politician played both sides of the issue. While campaigning for governor in 2006, Sarah Palin said, “I am a commercial fisherman; my daughter’s name is Bristol,” and “I could not support a project that risks one resource that we know is a given, and that is the world’s richest spawning grounds, over another resource.” But two years later, she said she opposed a state ballot measure to restrict the discharge of toxic waste from new mining operations, which might have stopped the Pebble project from developing further. Some Alaskans took this as a betrayal of her promise to protect Alaska’s fisheries. The measure was defeated.

In 2010, an unlikely alliance of commercial fishermen, native tribes, and concerned citizens decided that their next best hope for stopping the Pebble Mine was to get the federal government to intervene. Even “Redneck Republicans,” as one Alaskan called himself, were concerned that the mine’s promise wasn't enough to risk ruining the salmon fishery. The alliance petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a preliminary investigation of the potential ecological impact of a hypothetical large-scale mining operation in Bristol Bay. The idea was that the agency could step in and shut down the Pebble Mine project by determining, in advance, that it would have "unacceptable" adverse effects on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Section 404 of the Clean Water Act prohibits any construction in navigable waters (e.g., in and around the Bristol Bay watershed) without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Act authorizes the EPA to block permission from being granted. When the EPA responded to the petition from Alaska, it seemed unlikely that the agency would eventually invoke this power. And as the EPA began conducting its scientific study in 2011, the nation's attention shifted to the highly visible debate over Keystone XL.

In the spring of 2013, the EPA released a draft of its watershed assessment, foreshadowing future actions from Administrator Gina McCarthy. The draft assessment indicated that the mine would have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the Bristol Bay watershed. Despite those findings, McCarthy maintained that she was "open-minded" about the Pebble Mine and traveled to Bristol Bay in August 2013 on a "fact-finding mission" to speak directly with stakeholders. She heard from tribal leaders (“No amount of money or jobs can replace our way of life”), the Pebble Partnership’s wage workers (If Pebble weren’t here I’d probably be on welfare, probably be on food stamps, probably be on energy assistance”), and fishermen ("All the mine is going to do is kill our fisheries"). This provided fresh fodder for observers on all sides; Pebble Mine supporters, especially, were anxious that McCarthy might be persuaded to put up hurdles to the approval process.

A month after McCarthy's Alaska trip, Anglo American withdrew from the Pebble Partnership—citing a desire to “prioritize capital to projects with the highest value and lowest risks”—giving Northern Dynasty sole ownership. In doing so, Anglo American walked away from $541 million it had already invested and also took a $300 million loss, leading to speculation that the company was worried about regulators blocking the mine. “Pause on that number for a sec,” Businessweek's Brad Wieners noted with astonishment. Anglo American “just forfeited a return on more than half a billion dollars of its shareholders’ money.” But publicly, Anglo American and Northern Dynasty both expressed optimism about the mine's prospects.

That companies have been fighting to mine the rich deposits of gold and copper in Bristol Bay for more than a decade isn't surprising. Nor is it surprising that the Keystone XL pipeline—which runs through a huge swath of the continental U.S. and has split along more predictably partisan lines—eclipsed the Pebble Mine in the public eye.

But the most recent development in the Pebble Mine saga did deliver a small shock. On February 28, the agency did what environmentalists hoped and what the Pebble Partnership dreaded it would, invoking section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act and temporarily preventing the Army Corps from issuing any mining permits in Bristol Bay. That effectively halts the development process.

"While the announcement does not mean the Obama administration has made a final decision to prohibit Northern Dynasty from starting construction on the Pebble Mine project," Juliet Eilperin reported in The Washington Post, "it will delay it for months and make it much harder for the controversial project to move ahead at all."

It’s an aggressive action, though not “unprecedented,” as some have claimed. "This 404(c) process is not something, and I want to stress this, that the agency does very often but the Bristol Bay fishery is an extraordinary resource and it's worthy of out-of-the-ordinary agency actions to protect it," McCarthy told reporters.

While many Alaskans, especially those in the commercial fishing community, cheered at McCarthy’s announcement, lawmakers at the state and federal levels expressed dismay.

In a statement, Governor Sean Parnell, a Republican, called the EPA’s action “egregious,” “unprecedented,” and “beyond federal overreach. The EPA has not only cut off public input and process, but has also unilaterally decided that they, not Alaskans, know what’s best for our future.” Republican Don Young, Alaska’s House representative, characterized it as the “jurisdictional power grab” of “an agency corrupted by politics, one with no regard for the state or federal permitting processes found in statute”—adding, “The EPA seeks to broaden its reach until their tentacles encumber every aspect of American life.” Senator Lisa Murkowski, also a Republican, was also irked by what she views as “a terrible precedent that only further detracts from investors’ willingness to bring capital and jobs to Alaska.” Things are more complicated for the state delegation’s lone Democrat, Senator Mark Begich, who faces a difficult reelection battle in November. "I have said the Pebble Mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” Begich said. However, I am skeptical of federal overreach from an administration that has already demonstrated it does not understand Alaska's unique needs."

Alaska has long had an ambivalent relationship with Washington. The state has historically received more federal dollars per capita than most, if not all, other states. Yet Alaskans have chafed at federal intervention on issues from land management to gun rights. The Pebble Mine lays bare strange tensions between the state and the federal government, and shows how they cross party lines. Begich and late Senator Ted Stevens can both oppose the mine; Republicans and Democrats can join in opposition to federal involvement. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed “Redneck Republicans” who usually find themselves at odds with regulators can see an advantage to involving Washington in the decision-making process here.

But is the EPA playing out of bounds, as Alaska politicians allege? McCarthy's critics say she is unfairly undermining the normal process by which the Pebble Mine should be evaluated. Others are accusing her of approaching the project with bias from the very beginning. When people don't like the results of a government agency's "objective study," they poke the agency's inspector general for an investigation: Environmental groups demanded this of the State Department after it ultimately declared, early this year, that Keystone XL would have a "negligible effect on climate change," and Pebble Mine supporters are pushing for the same thing at the EPA, in protest of what they see as egregious "federal overreach."

Despite the strong feelings on display, the 404(c) action is an initiation of a process, not a terminal decision. As the Keystone fight has shown, sometimes when a federal agency reveals an early bias against a project like this, the developers just dig their heels in deeper. TransCanada may still get to build its pipeline, and ultimately Northern Dynasty may see the years and millions of dollars it's invested in the Pebble Mine project pay off.

Northern Dynasty CEO Tom Collier said his company is not going to give up on its plan. According to the Associated Press, Collier said EPA’s actions to date “have gone well outside of its normal practice, have been biased throughout, and have been unduly influenced by environmental advocacy organizations.” He also said that he remains "confident" about the future of the mine, and that his company will continue to try and gain the EPA's approval to move forward. If anything, this is the beginning, not the end, of the Pebble Mine controversy.

*This article originally stated that the mine would generate an estimated ten million tons of waste; the actual estimate is between 2.5 and 10 billion