North of 60 Mining News - The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Pebble Partnership copper gold molybdenum mine project Alaska Northern Dynasty NAK NDM

By J. P. Tangen
For Mining News 

Self-interest can serve public interest

Economics 101: Opposition to Pebble Project reflects irrational position of activists who are dedicated to destructive objectives It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. - Adam Smith, 1776


Last updated 8/30/2009 at Noon

When it comes to comprehending social forces that frame our society, it sometimes occurs that good people take irrational positions for strange reasons, despite unequivocal evidence that it is contrary to their own best interests. This irony contributes to the difficulty in understanding why so-called "public interest" activists, whether litigious or simply vocal participants on the political radar choose to dedicate their time and energy to destructive objectives.

The simplistic observation by Adam Smith about provisioners flies in the face of the on-going controversy relating to the Pebble Project. Modern mining in the United States, in general, and Alaska, in particular, is a heavily regulated, carefully watched industry. It is a safe industry. It is an environmentally sound industry. It provides commodities needed for every aspect of modern life. The Pebble Project not only will produce immense quantities of copper in response to global demand, it also will produce the metal from an isolated location that desperately needs the associated, very substantial, economic stimulus.

There is no conceptual risk associated with the Pebble Project to either the Bristol Bay fishery or to the subsistence lifestyle of the people who live in the immediate vicinity. No matter how large a pit the Pebble Project may one day excavate, it will not be visible to more than a very few people, other than project employees, from the ground. The project will be temporary, inasmuch as one day it will be mined out, reclaimed and secured. It is in the self-interest of the people who live in Southwest Alaska to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in support of this project. Failure to do so reflects a total lack of understanding of fundamental economics in the broadest sense.

We know there are NIMBYs in the world - people who don't want a commercial project in their backyard no matter what the justification; and there are BANANAs - those who advocate Building Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything; and there are CAVEs - Citizens Against Virtually Everything - but surely even they must perceive themselves as eccentric.

Last summer millions of dollars were misspent on an initiative to try to halt the Pebble Project and cripple the state's mining industry. The people of Alaska were wisely motivated, in the final analysis to reject the ballot measure. This year, the forces of evil have now turned to the courts with a lawsuit that ostensibly targets the Pebble Project but will, once again, wreak havoc on the industry, as a whole.

The pending litigation seeks to enjoin permits being issued to the Pebble Project, and, without a smidgeon of proof of harm to Alaska or Alaskans, castigates the Department of Natural Resources for its oversight practices. It also attacks temporary water use permits, despite the fact that no one in the state can claim to lack access to needed volumes; and it blurs carefully drawn distinctions agreed to by the state's founding fathers with regard to the special needs of the mining industry for self-initiation and security of tenure. In addition, it promises to waste another ton of money.

Alaskans may not be on the same economic cycle as Lower 48ers, but it is still irrational in the current national economic climate to initiate litigation that will simmer and boil for years before our Supreme Court hands down a split decision destined to generate a new cascade of controversy.

How is the self-interest of the people of Alaska served by this ongoing idiocy?

Adam Smith was not the end of economic introspection, but only an instigator. His insights have been massaged and amended incessantly since their publication. Nonetheless, a central principal shines through. Neither the baker, the butcher nor the brewer operates in the "public interest," yet the public interest is advanced by them functioning in their own self-interest in the public marketplace.

It goes without saying that government has a role in ensuring that those who seek the public trust must risk sanctions for abuse of that trust - the butcher cannot sell short weights, and the brewer cannot water his wares. And surely, the agents of government must be held wholly accountable at every stage, as well - there can be no tipping allowed. Affected citizens at every level are also well-justified in sounding the alarm when miscreants color outside the lines.

But what if everything is above the board? Suppose the mining project complies with the word and the spirit of the rules. Suppose it does no harm to the environment or to the people. Suppose there is transparency in every step. The public interest is not then advanced by attacks in the media and in the courts.

Proponents of the attacks on the Pebble Project and Alaska's mining industry are not serving the public or the public interest. They are serving mischievous ends for which they should be held to answer.

The jurisdiction of the courts is malleable. Perhaps the time has come to inquire what remedial steps are appropriate if the public interest is being abused.


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