Brief # 100; Environment Policy
Trump, Pressured to Reject Mining Permit in Alaska, Races to Sell Drilling Leases in the Arctic
By Jacob Morton
Since the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump has had his eye on Alaska, hoping to expand extraction of its rich mineral and fossil fuel deposits. While in office, Trump has overturned Obama era limitations on mining activities in the Bristol Bay Region of Alaska and has pushed for increased oil and gas drilling in the Arctic refuge on Alaska’s northeastern coastal plain. In the summer of 2019, despite overwhelming public opposition and allegations of flawed scientific analysis, the Trump administration revived the notorious Pebble Mine project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
The Pebble Mine Partnership and its mother company Northern Dynasty Minerals have worked for the past thirteen years to secure the necessary permits to extract minerals from one of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits. If mined, the deposit could produce “70 million tons of gold, molybdenum and copper ore a year.” The extraction, however, would leave a pit 600 meters deep in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. The project’s opponents have argued for years that the mine would threaten the “world-class” sockeye salmon fishery of Bristol Bay and put “more than $1 billion of revenue and over 10,000 jobs at risk.”
In 2014, the Obama administration had blocked any advancement of the Pebble Mine project, citing its concerns of Clean Water Act violations and the impact on the sockeye salmon industry, including a 2013 Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA) which confirmed that the Pebble Mine could not be operated without impacting the Bristol Bay and harming its salmon population. In 2015, concerns for the welfare of the Bristol Bay Watershed were so strong that the EPA issued a Proposed Determination to permanently limit all mining activities in the region. Polls at the time showed that 89.5% of the country was in support of establishing strong protections for Bristol Bay.
As previously reported by US Resist News, the Trump administration has since thrown out the Obama era Proposed Determination, ignored claims of a faulty and skewed Environmental Impact Assessment, and has resumed permit processing for the Pebble Mine project despite opposition from environmental groups, First Nation tribal leaders, and members of his own political party. Similarly and as previously reported, while controversy erupted over Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine project, Donald Trump and a republican controlled congress passed a plan to begin leasing tracts of land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge along Alaska’s northeastern coastal plain for oil and gas drilling. Until then, this refuge had been protected for nearly six decades.
As 2020 comes to a close, we have all by now learned to expect the unexpected. And with a lame duck president, infamous for breaking norms and ignoring established protocols, recent developments over the past two weeks have proven no exception. In a surprising turn of events, on November 26 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) rejected a Clean Water Act permit required for the development of the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay. Upon making its decision, the USACE released a statement explaining that the project’s proposed waste management plan for the displaced rock and other waste materials, “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines” and that “the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.” Given that President Elect Joe Biden continues to oppose the mine, this decision by the Army Corps effectively kills any near-future plans for continuing the project.
Meanwhile, the outgoing Trump administration has moved its attention northward, making clear its intentions to solidify the sales of multiple drilling leases in the Arctic refuge before leaving office. On December 3, Trump’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that the sale of lease agreements will take place on January 6. Typically, before a sale date is officially announced by the BLM, a window of anywhere from 1 to 2 months is reserved for private industry to outline which exact tracts of land they propose to drill in, and for the BLM to review these plans. The agency and the Trump administration cut this window down to 16 days before making the announcement. A traditional timeframe would have produced a sale date just before or just after Joe Biden’s Inauguration day on January 20.
Though the rejection of the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay was certainly unexpected, its support among republicans had grown more and more mixed. Typically, republicans and Alaska politicians tend to support the expansion of domestic mineral production, but perhaps the threat to the sockeye salmon industry, as well as world renowned sportfishing and hunting grounds posed too great a concern. According to Politico, “President Donald Trump faced a public pressure campaign from Republicans, including mega-donor Andy Sabin, Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to block the project.” Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) both joined the opposition after secretly recorded tapes were released this summer “featuring the then-CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, Tom Collier, boasting about how he would influence Alaskan politicians to ultimately support the project,” and that the company was planning a mine much larger than they had requested a permit for.
Alaskan congressman Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) disagrees with the rejection. He believes the issue is one of state’s rights and says he is “disappointed that the federal government gets to decide before Alaskans do.” Young argues, “Now there must be a consideration of how the federal government will compensate the State for the loss of economic potential. The proposed mine has always been subject to political intrigue and the whims of outsiders who simply do not understand our state.” John Shively, CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership said the company is “dismayed” at the rejection and has vowed to appeal the decision. Shively argues that the company has worked hard to meet the requirements of the Army Corps, and says, “It is very disconcerting to see political influence in this process at the eleventh hour.”
Opponents of the project, however, are relieved by the decision after over a decade of uncertainty. Nanci Morris Lyon, owner of Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon, Bristol Bay says, “It is an incredible relief. I felt like sitting down and just crying for a while.” For many Bristol Bay locals, “the prospect of the mine has held the whole region hostage for years. Lodge owners like [Lyon] didn’t know if they could invest in their businesses.” Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate natural resources committee, says he is “pleased” by the decision. Manchin said in a statement, “I understand the important role mining plays in our economy, but the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project did not come near close enough to assuring me this world-class sockeye salmon fishery, which generates $1.5 billion each year and supports 14,000 jobs, would be protected.” The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The United Tribes of Bristol Bay, representing 15 area tribal governments, have said they would seek permanent protections for the area.
Northward, however, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, drilling leases are being prepared for sale. The American Petroleum Institute praised the Trump administration’s push to expand drilling in the area, claiming “it would provide jobs and add to Alaska’s revenue, which has been suffering as oil production on the North Slope has declined over the years.” Many Alaskan politicians also support opening the refuge to drilling. Environmental groups feel differently. According to Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, “This is a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to give one last handout to the fossil fuel industry on his way out the door, at the expense of our public lands and our climate.”
Despite the support however, it is unclear what level of interest oil companies have for the area. The cost of drilling in the Arctic is much greater than in other states such as Texas, and for many companies, the risk to their reputation may not be worth the hassle. According to the New York Times, “Most experts say it would be at least a decade or longer before any oil or gas was extracted from the refuge. By then, the drive to reduce worldwide fossil fuel use may mean there is little or no market for the oil.” Many major banks have already said they will not lend money to companies for drilling in the refuge.
For companies that do choose to explore the area, it is uncertain how much oil they will find. The most recent exploratory well was drilled in the ‘80’s, with “disappointing” results. In 2017, the Trump administration claimed a potential of $1.8 billion in revenue for the government over a decade of drilling. However, recent independent analyses, “Based on similar sales in Alaska over the past several decades,” have found “potential revenue over the next decade would likely be in the range of tens of millions of dollars,” significantly lower than the original estimate. Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, says, “We will need [Joe Biden] to use all the tools at his disposal to stop the industrialization of this iconic national treasure.”
Alaska Wilderness League
- The Alaska Wilderness League (AWL) is a nonprofit organization that works to protect Alaska’s most significant wild lands from oil and gas drilling and from other industrial threats. The Alaska Wilderness League galvanizes support to secure vital policies that protect and defend America’s last great wild public lands and waters. https://www.alaskawild.org/
National Resources Defense Council
- Works to safeguard the earth – its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. Combining the power of more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of some 700 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild. https://www.nrdc.org/
United Tribes of Bristol Bay
- United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) is a tribal consortium working to protect the traditional Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq ways of life in Bristol Bay that depend on the sustainable harvest of our watershed’s renewable resources, most notably Bristol Bay’s wild salmon. http://www.utbb.org/
Adragna, A., & Snider, A. (2020, November 26). Trump administration rejects massive Alaska mining project. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/25/trump-administration-alaska-mining-project-440626
Fountain, H. (2020, December 03). Sale of Arctic Refuge Oil and Gas Leases Is Set for Early January. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/climate/arctic-refuge-lease-sales.html?utm_campaign=Hot+News
Lewis, J., & Rosen, Y. (2020, November 25). U.S. rejects permit for Alaska’s Pebble mine, company vows appeal. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-alaska-pebblemine-idUSKBN2852XM
Ruskin, L. (2020, November 25). Trump Administration Rejects Pebble Mine Project in Alaska. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2020/11/25/939002676/trump-administration-rejects-pebble-mine-project-in-alaska
Young, D. (2020, November 25). Congressman Don Young Issues Statement Following U.S. Army Corps Decision to Deny Permit to Pebble Mine. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://donyoung.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=401842