Crockett discusses state of Alaska mining
AMA exec provides update on Alaska miners response to COVID-19, Alaska mining issues, and what sets state apart
Last updated 3/26/2020 at 11:51am
In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and following the cancellation of the Alaska Miners Association 2020 Spring Convention in Fairbanks, AMA Executive Director Deantha Crockett takes the time to answer 20 questions on how the pandemic is affecting Alaska's mining sector and the association; Alaska's economy; state and federal mining policy; and due process for the Pebble Mine project.
Q. Alaska Miners Association recently made the difficult decision to cancel its spring convention held every other year in Fairbanks. Can you tell us a little bit more about the reasoning behind the cancellation?
A. As you correctly categorized, it was a difficult decision. A substantial amount of work went into the planning of the event, one that is held only every two years, and hundreds of sponsors, vendors, and attendees had plans to participate in a sold out trade show, completely full slot of technical sessions, fully booked tours, and more. I have no doubt it was going to be our most successful Fairbanks conference ever. However, unprecedented world events began to unfold very quickly and it became clear we needed to assess whether holding the event was the right decision. Ultimately, it came down to an abundance of caution. As an industry that holds health and safety to the highest value, holding the convention at a time where health officials were cautioning against mass gatherings was just unwise. We chose to cancel it nearly a month beforehand to ensure we were prioritizing safety and providing our participants with as much notice as possible.
Q. Is AMA considering rescheduling this convention for later this year, or Spring 2021?
A. We also discussed this at great length. At the time we canceled the Fairbanks event, the immediate future was so uncertain, it was impossible to identify a viable alternate date. That is even more true today, three weeks later. So, we decided to cancel, and do our best to retain the speakers, instructors, vendors, and other participants for inclusion in our Annual Convention in November, which at the time of writing this, is still on as scheduled. Miners are optimists, after all!
Q. In addition to an important network and marketing event for Alaska's mining sector, the biennial conference in Fairbanks helps to support the AMA. What other actions can the membership take to support the associations efforts in the near-term?
A. Thank you so much for this question. Our conventions are well over half of AMA's annual revenue, which funds the mission year-round. That means that testimony before the Legislature, meetings with regulatory agencies, Mining Day at the Fairs – all of AMA's work is supported by financial contributions from the private mining industry sector. We understand that COVID-19 is dealing a tremendous economic blow, and that members may see decreased production and revenue, higher operating costs, and other hits to the bottom line. As an industry, we must brace for the storm that is coming. AMA has reserve funds for just these kinds of reasons, and we will continue to be here fighting for Alaska's miners all year long. However, we ask that if you are able to continue your financial participation in AMA at your current levels, please do. And if you have to cut back this year, please consider coming back at higher levels in the future to ensure we safeguard our economic reserves.
Q. The AMA conferences also provide vital fund-raising opportunities for Alaska Resource Education. What can AMA membership do to support the education and outreach programs put on by ARE?
A. Please keep ARE in mind as they are supported by multiple industries dealing with an economic downturn, not just miners. Without their presence in Alaska's schools, we will not have a future workforce and supportive public. We have to remember to support them in any way we are able.
Q. While COVID-19 and the protocols being established to prevent its spread is causing concern, especially for seniors, Alaska's mining community has stepped up to help. Can you tell us more about initiatives AMA members are taking in the community in response to coronavirus?
A. This question is somewhat difficult to answer because the conditions of COVID-19 are changing not by the day, but by the hour. At this time, mines have taken precautions to ensure its workforce is healthy and able to continue working both on and off-shift. They have educated their employees on best practices and encouraged their community partners to be aware and follow health organization advisories.
Q. Several of the mines in Alaska have camps for their crews. Have any of these operations expressed concerns about COVID-19 or any protocols being established for coronavirus?
A. Operations are very concerned about keeping the virus away from their workers and ensuring all workers show up healthy and safe. Again, the situation is changing rapidly, and the mines are working with health officials to employ the best practices they can. I have seen firsthand that these operations are looking at employee welfare first and profit second. The operations have been communicating with each other, participating in idea sharing, and doing their very best to deal with this very difficult situation.
Q. 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year for mining in Alaska, especially for mineral exploration and development. Have you heard any talk of curtailing or postponing programs due to concerns associated with COVID-19?
A. At the time of this interview, I have not gotten word of any cancelled or postponed mining activity scheduled for the field season of 2020. I remain very hopeful that the citizenry is responsive to mandates and guidance from our health officials, and our country comes through this awful situation and can resume normal life, including mining activity, by the time field season begins in Alaska. It's a huge challenge, but Alaskans have always been really good with challenges.
Q. The recent drop in equity markets, oil, gas and metals prices will likely create additional stress on Alaska's already fragile economy. Is this something AMA is watching closely?
A. Absolutely. All of these things are connected and they all have an impact on mining in Alaska. Capital is going to be harder to find, belts will be tightened, and jobs will be lost. We're monitoring this and evaluating any steps that can be taken to mitigate the stress.
Q. Do you have any advice for state and federal policymakers looking for ways to help Alaska's economy during this tumultuous time?
A. From what I have observed so far, our Congressional Delegation has done a wonderful job in focusing on mitigating impacts to Alaskans and reaching out to individuals and businesses to more fully understand what can be done to help. I personally have heard from all three members' offices asking for information on how miners are affected. The State lawmakers are also deliberating solutions to help just as fast as they can. I have nothing but compliments for our policymakers so far as they address not only the health advisory side of this issue, but also the economics. The only advice I have is to continue the communications and work hard to understand the unique challenges that vary by industry, and to ease any burdens businesses had before the Coronavirus crisis arrived to ensure that we remove any barriers to business that we can possibly remove.
Q. One of AMA's primary goals is to monitor the political landscape and advocate for Alaska's mining sector. Are there any issues on the federal level that the association is monitoring?
A. Tons, but I forgot what they were! Just kidding. We recently submitted comments on the Center for Environmental Quality's proposal to reform the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, which is long overdue and will go a long way toward encouraging mining investment in our country. We're continuing to work through our national partners to ensure the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) doesn't inaccurately portray the industry as polluters and that EPA provides full information on mining operations. And while Congress (and everyone else) is consumed with addressing the COVID-19 issue, we must remain vigilant on other issues that can either hurt or help our industry, so AMA continues to monitor.
Q. American Energy Innovation Act, legislation introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, includes mineral security provisions. What is AMA's position on this bill?
A. Strong support! We are so grateful to the Senator for including mineral provisions in the energy bill. There is a long road ahead, but this bill is a great example of how industries face the same challenges and enjoy the same opportunities to better Alaska.
Q. Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy recently attended the AME Roundup in Vancouver, B.C. and spoke at the AMA-sponsored Alaska Night event at that mining convention. Can you tell us more about what his attendance demonstrates?
A. That our state welcomes miners with open arms! Immediately upon being elected, Governor Dunleavy held his first press conference at our Annual Convention, and at the microphone declared that mining was important to Alaska and he would ensure his Administration supported the growth of the industry. His attendance at Roundup further demonstrates that. He went to Vancouver with a twofold mission – one, to send the message that Alaska is open for mining business, and two, to learn from mining companies about how Alaska can further improve its reputation as a mining-friendly jurisdiction. When a Governor attends a conference specifically catered to networking of industry representatives and investment houses, believe me, it is noticed. And as a result, more mining investors than ever are watching Alaska.
Q. Gov. Dunleavy also mentioned mining in his 2020 State of the State address? Does this help to reinforce the message that "Alaska is open for business," particularly for mining?
A. I thought the Governor's SOTS comments on resource development were really thought-provoking in that mining was brought up in the context of economic diversification. We've been blessed for many years to have oil production cover our state's needs, and I'm at the front of the prayer line hoping that continues, but it is irresponsible to focus on only one industry when considering Alaska's economy. Governor Dunleavy's comments said yes, we must continue to support measures that support oil and gas production, but we also must focus our energies on growing the number of mines contributing to our economy, and ensure we're welcoming travelers to the state to bolster our tourism economy, maximizing state revenues brought in by fishing, and so on. Alaska so desperately needs to look at the big, diverse picture of our resource economy, and I was glad to hear the Governor say as much.
Q. Alaska was ranked as the fourth best jurisdiction for mining investment in the most recent Fraser Institute Annual Survey of Mining Companies. What do you feel is Alaska mining's greatest strength?
A. Honestly, I'd answer that question several different ways depending on the context. Since the context is the Fraser report, I'd say our biggest strength remains our mineral potential. Alaska is reputed to have impressive mineral deposits all over the state, but even more so, it's known that we've barely scratched the surface and there's vast potential for discovery of the next world-class deposit. That's an exciting possibility for miners, and it maintains our standing as an exciting jurisdiction in which to come explore.
Q. When it comes to mining policy, Alaska ranked as the 17th best mining jurisdiction on the Fraser Survey. What could the state and federal governments do better to improve the perceptions of mining policy in Alaska?
A. While we have tremendous mineral potential, we've still got a lot of growing up to do. We're an underdeveloped state with massive infrastructure needs. You've likely heard it said that if our major mineral deposits were in a place like Nevada, where you could drive right up and plug right into an energy grid, they'd already be mines. Alaska is an enormously expensive place to do business and a large part of that is infrastructure. But it is also our policy in general. Mining projects in our state always face some sort of controversy from the organizations and individuals so adamantly opposed to mining in general. A mining proposal will likely see a massive campaign launched at the early outset outlining why people and communities should fear the project, litigation at every possible permitting step, perhaps even a massive ballot measure campaign aimed to stop mining. While the state and federal government can't do anything to stop those tactics, they can uphold, promote, and defend the regulatory process. Alaska's environmental protection regime is among the best in the world. People boast about it every day. So it is imperative for those regulatory agencies that oversee mining to first, do a thorough job within the scope of their responsibilities, then, share their roles and successes with the general public at any given opportunity, and finally, push back when they are accused of doing a poor job of regulating mining. We as miners know we have a great regulatory system, but the regulators themselves must publicly state it.
Q. One of the issues Alaska faces as a frontier mining jurisdiction is the lack of infrastructure. Is there anything that the state or federal governments can or should be doing to improve infrastructure in Alaska?
A. Infrastructure is a huge deal to the mining industry. We aren't just building remote mines – we're really building a very small community around a mine. We need access, energy, treatment systems, living quarters, you name it. Greens Creek and Kensington mines had to build ports, Pogo put in a 70-plus-mile road and power transmission line, Donlin is looking at a 300-plus-mile natural gas pipeline. We don't view infrastructure as a government responsibility, however, one of the best and most successful infrastructure partnerships to date is the Delong Mountain Transportation System, the road between the Red Dog Mine and port site. The original investment by the Alaska Infrastructure Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) provided for the construction of the road and allowed the mine to come to fruition, and AIDEA's return on the investment has been staggering. AIDEA should continue to pursue the right kind of investments that bring infrastructure to a mining project, therefore creating the jobs and economic growth, and provide AIDEA with a terrific ROI to continue its mission.
Q. One proposed infrastructure project is the 200-mile road to the Ambler Mining District. What is AMA's position on the Ambler Road?
A. AMA has of course always advocated for access to our mineral resources. Without that, they are simply deposits with no future potential. The Ambler Road has potential, particularly to be modeled after AIDEA's investment in Red Dog, to bring revenues to the state at a time we need it most.
Q. One thing that sets Alaska apart is that its aboriginal land claims were settled nearly five decades ago with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Can you tell us what ANCSA means for mining in the state?
A. All Alaskans, and especially us miners, have benefitted from ANCSA. Our partnerships with Alaska Native Corporations have abundantly blessed regions and the entire state. I can tell you, in networking with colleagues in other states and countries, I frequently hear that Alaska is looked upon to have set the example for good relationships between industry and the first people. And as a born and raised Alaskan, I'm incredibly proud of that.
Q. The Pebble Mine project has been a lightening for controversy. Does AMA feel that this proposed copper-gold-molybdenum mine project deserve due process during permitting?
A. Every project deserves due process during permitting. Period, no exceptions. Due process and the permitting system are what evaluates whether a project can be done safely and in accordance with dozens of laws and regulations. If a mining proposal cannot pass that evaluation, then it should not be allowed to proceed. But no project should be denied this process, nor should it be treated differently.
Q. Do you have anything else you would like to say to the North of 60 Mining News audience?
A. On behalf of the Alaska Miners Association and its members, we'd like to thank North of 60 Mining News for always reaching out to report the facts on our operations and projects, for going above and beyond to feature full coverage of what is happening in the industry. And we'd like to thank all of the readers for your support and involvement with Alaska mining. Thank you!
Thank you Deantha for those kind words and taking the time to answer 20 Questions for 2020!