The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Settlement puts Pebble back in play

The renewed opportunity for development of a once sidelined copper mine in Southwest Alaska give us all hope for the future

Last week the Pebble Project announced that it had reached a settlement with the EPA of pending litigation in conjunction with the agency's previous determination to block the development of the project. Essentially, the settlement means that Pebble will be able to resume the permit application process with the hope of ultimately opening a mine.

This good news, besides the obvious possibility of a major mine going forward in Southwest Alaska, is that it lets us dream of a turnaround in the attitude of the federal government with regard to the development of domestic resource projects, especially in Alaska.

It is fair to say that for too long the regulatory agencies have forgotten how to get to "yes" when it comes to dealing with permit applications. There can be no doubt that the EPA led the way in ballooning its statutory authority to envelope every effort on the part of the private sector to do virtually anything. The appointment of a new Administrator may put the brakes on to some extent; however, how long that will last and what good it will do is still an open question.

I am not at all sure that the EPA in particular or the regulatory agencies in general actually define their respective mandates as an obligation to bring domestic industry to its knees. On the other hand, that is the track record. Generally, it is called the Law of Unintended Consequences. Under that law "any action will have at least one consequence not intended by its author." In science, it is the Chaos theory.

Under the Chaos theory, every time a butterfly flaps its wings, the entire world is changed ever so slightly. So too, in our society, every time a bureaucrat taps a keyboard to implement some bright idea, the unintended and chaotic consequences often change our lives randomly and imperceptibly forever.

It is indisputable that Congress and the progressive administrations of the past several decades have given the federacracy ample fodder to flap its wings. The impact on Alaska has been palpable, but no more so than in the case of the Pebble Project.

With Pebble, there is a known deposit of significant size containing copper and gold, as well as other commodities, that are needed and in demand. The deposit is located in a remote region where unemployment is high, social services are marginal and infrastructure is non-existent. The impact of the environment on a mine will not only be minimal, due to Draconian oversight, but temporary, because even the largest mines will be exhausted over time.

The competing considerations include a huge Seattle-based fishery and a local culture oriented around a subsistence lifestyle. These critics feel an undifferentiated threat from Pebble; but, the region is already calamity prone - witness the local earthquakes, volcanoes and extreme weather conditions. Any theoretical hazard that might befall the mine would not pose an extraordinary jeopardy.

Despite how we arrived at the point where the Pebble Project and the EPA have come to an understanding as to how to proceed, at least through the permit application process, the very fact of that settlement should give us all comfort.

Alaska hosts tremendous reserves of natural resources, many of which are ripe for harvest. It is not uncommon for them to die on the vine. From the molybdenum deposit at Quartz Hill to the Chuitna Coal project on the west side of Cook Inlet, many mining opportunities have been defined and left for others to develop.

In the short run, the flap of a butterfly's wing in the District of Columbia can affect all Alaskans adversely. In the long run, it will not change either the demand for our commodities or our technical ability to recover them.

It is heartening that the new Administration has afforded the Pebble Project the opportunity to proceed with applying for permits for the project. We cannot forget, however, that it took developers of the Kensington Mine two decades and a trip to the U. S. Supreme Court to get that mine permitted. Pebble is just being allowed to take an early step down a very long road.

All that we can do now is extend our congratulations, cross our fingers and wish Pebble Godspeed.


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