A lot riding on Alaska's Pebble Mine
As America's next great copper mine approaches its final federal permit, world is watching to see if 'rule of law' prevails North of 60 Mining News – September 25, 2020
Last updated 10/1/2020 at 9:05pm
Northern Dynasty Minerals first set its sights on Alaska's Pebble deposit in the 1990s. After acquiring the property in 2001, the company spent more than a decade and close to $1 billion proving it up as one of the greatest mineral resources ever discovered – certainly on American soil.
Consider the following:
• contained copper at Pebble is equivalent to ~1.3% of all the copper metal ever discovered or produced in the past 10,000 years;
• contained gold at Pebble is equivalent to ~1.8% of all the gold ever produced;
• Pebble is the largest deposit of rhenium in the world;
(Rhenium is a rare element used in high-octane fuels, jet engines and other military applications. Given America's reliance on foreign producers for 82% of its needs, the US military considers domestic production of rhenium critical to the country's long-term security.
• mineral deposits of Pebble's scale and composition are exceedingly rare (and getting rarer). The last time a deposit like Pebble was discovered on American soil was 1863.
The significance of this mineral endowment speaks for itself. But Pebble's location also presents real and compelling advantages.
As a project in the United States, a country with an iron-clad, centuries-long commitment to the 'rule of law', Pebble would not be prone to resource nationalism, political corruption or the human rights abuses that plague so many of the world's great mineral properties located in less developed countries.
As an asset of the State of Alaska – a leading resource jurisdiction, and one that has proven it can balance responsible development with healthy fish and wildlife – Pebble would enjoy public and political support, and a skilled workforce.
Finally (and this may surprise some who have followed Pebble from afar), the deposit itself is located in an almost ideal location for mining.
Pebble sits in a broad, flat, treeless valley about 1,000 feet above sea level, 65 miles from tidewater and 20 miles from the closest small villages. Climatically, conditions are temperate. There is no permafrost. There is ample, but not excessive, water. And because Pebble sits at the very upper reaches of three small streams, what little aquatic habitat exists is of low-to-modest quality and seldom used.
More than one C-suite executive from the world's largest mining companies has stood on an outlook overlooking the Pebble valley and declared the site "perfect" for mineral development. For modern miners, the development issues at Pebble are relatively straight-forward. Some people don't want to hear that about Pebble, but it's true.
Notwithstanding these clear advantages, Northern Dynasty understood early on that advancing the Pebble Project through engineering design and permitting would not be easy. We acknowledged and accepted that Alaska and the US enforce some of the most stringent environmental and permitting regulations in the world.
In addition, the Pebble deposit is located in a largely undeveloped region of Southwest Alaska. At 40,000 square miles (about the same size as Iceland), the region comprises eight major watersheds that collectively support the world's largest salmon fishery in nearby Bristol Bay, and a fundamentally intact Alaska Native culture inextricably linked to this resource.
We knew from the start there would be a high degree of public concern about our project and whether it could co-exist with Bristol Bay's culturally and economically important fisheries. It's a legitimate concern, but it must also be understood in context.
For instance, the commercial fishing grounds of Bristol Bay lie 230 river miles distant from the Pebble site. The mine will only have a footprint in (and so can only possibly affect) one of the eight river systems that produce Bristol Bay salmon. And the 230 sq. mile area immediately surrounding the deposit, where the project's effects will realistically occur, support less than 1/10th of 1% of the overall fisheries resource.
So, we started out to develop a mine at Pebble with a healthy respect for the people of Alaska and their interests, with an appreciation for America's tough environmental standards, and a real desire to do things right. We knew Pebble would eventually become one of the world's great metal producers, but we also wanted it to stand as a testament to how 21st century mining can be done responsibly – economically, for sure, but also socially and environmentally.
This desire to 'do things right' manifested in different ways. Over the years, Northern Dynasty has spent more money studying the environment surrounding Pebble than any other mineral development project in the world – some $200 million and counting.
We spent years of effort investigating the optimal engineering design for the project, incorporating environmental safeguards we believe will become standard practice for our industry in the years ahead.
Importantly, we undertook in-depth social engagement to really get to know the people of the region, their hopes, fears, priorities and expectations. We even funded community visioning exercises to help local villages envision the future they wanted for themselves and their children – with or without a mine.
What we discovered was, while local people care passionately about the health of their environment and (in particular) the fish and wildlife it supports, they also want to see demonstrable change in their quality of life. And not just their own lives, but those of their children and grandchildren. In many cases, they see the lack of economic opportunity as an existential threat to their villages and their culture.
Pebble also engaged local tribes and Alaska Native corporations commercially – working to expand their business capabilities while providing skills training and much-needed local jobs. We engaged them in important contracting, like environmental baselines studies and archeological surveys, ensuring that Pebble both respected and benefitted from traditional and local knowledge.
There is little doubt these efforts paid off. The project design we've proposed, and that will soon be permitted by federal regulators, is better by far because of the time we took and the money we spent to do things right.
Despite these efforts, however, Pebble ran into uniquely American political headwinds early on.
Beginning in 2005 or 2006, one of Alaska's wealthiest individuals – a money manager with a personal 10,000-square-foot fishing lodge about 25 miles from Pebble– used tens of millions of dollars of his own wealth to found and fund purpose-built environmental groups to publicly oppose the project.
There was a great deal of self-interest in this, to be sure. But over the years, a hypocritical campaign to protect one man's private fishing experience morphed and grew, and attracted national environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others, who for generations have built their empires by battling resource development in Alaska.
Along the way, the relentless (and I do mean relentless) fear-based campaign against Pebble scared local people about the project's potential to affect Bristol Bay salmon, and even soured many Alaskans on the project. The media echo chamber, and its single lens focus on the Pebble 'controversy,' only served to exacerbate public concern and define the project as a false choice between copper and salmon.
It did more than that too. In an unprecedented move, the NRDC convinced its fellow travelers in the Obama administration to try to veto Pebble before we'd even applied for a permit. It also aimed its propaganda machine at financial markets, threatening any bank, investment fund or company daring to invest in Pebble with an attack on their reputation and business.
Despite the fundamentally sound development approach Northern Dynasty has taken...despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on environmental and engineering studies...despite the project's location on state land specifically designated for mineral development...despite being one of the most valuable mineral assets ever discovered in America...the Pebble Project today is viewed by many in our hyper-politicized, social media-driven, post-fact world as an environmental pariah.
In the face of these headwinds, Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Project have endured.
In 2016, a federal administration committed to objective, science-based regulatory decision-making, and a rejection of political interference in permitting, came to power.
In 2017, Pebble initiated permitting with a substantially smaller project, adding new and innovative design features to respond to stakeholder concerns – including eliminating cyanide in mineral processing, and advancing industry-leading approaches to manage waste and protect clean water.
In 2018, Alaska voters overwhelmingly elected a state administration committed to responsible resource development as a means to extricate the state from its deepening fiscal and economic decline.
In 2019 and 2020, Pebble introduced meaningful new social programs to ensure our project benefits local people and all Alaskans. This includes: sharing royalties from the mine with local residents; bringing reliable, low-cost power and supplies to villages struggling under one of the highest costs of living in the country; and ensuring Alaska Native corporations are major contractors in the Pebble enterprise.
These programs will supplement the ~2000 jobs and other economic benefits that Pebble will bring to Alaska, and the mine's transformative effect on a region slowly losing its schools, its villages and its Alaska Native culture as people leave in search of economic opportunity elsewhere.
Most recently, Northern Dynasty received the one judgment that matters more than any other when it comes to determining once and for all whether Pebble will become a pariah or a future standard bearer for America's modern minerals industry.
In July 2020, after more than 2½ years of intensive study by 11 federal, state and local government agencies, and extensive consultation with public stakeholders and Alaska Native tribes, the final Environmental Impact Statement for the Pebble Project was published. The verdict of its independent expert authors and professional regulators:
• Pebble will fully protect the water resources of Southwest Alaska;
• Pebble will have no measurable impact on any fish population or fishery in the region;
• Pebble will make a profound economic contribution to the state and the nation, and particularly to the struggling Alaska Native villages in the project area.
No one has mounted a serious challenge to these conclusions. And so, while there is still opposition to Pebble among environmental activists and some Alaskans, Northern Dynasty now has a clear path to permit and develop the project. In doing so, we have an opportunity to prove that modern mines can and do co-exist with healthy fish and wildlife, and other productive land uses.
But given Pebble's profile (as a political issue) and its significance (as one of the greatest mineral deposits ever discovered), there may be even more at stake than a single project.
The successful development of Pebble will confirm the US has the highest environmental and social justice standards in the world, and the confidence to develop its resources safely and responsibly. In time, Pebble will become a leading example of why the US must develop her mineral resources to meet the country's 21st century needs – for economic and military security, for domestic manufacturing, for clean and renewable power, and for mineral independence.
With all that in play, I'll admit it's a bit disconcerting that Pebble is awaiting its final Record of Decision as the US election nears. To be sure, we've seen some unhelpful and self-serving political posturing from both sides – from anti-development crusaders on the left and wealthy sport-fishing enthusiasts looking to preserve their personal playgrounds on the right.
But I'm confident Pebble will prevail. In fact, I believe it must prevail in order to restore investor confidence in the United States, and for the world's miners to embrace the highest environmental, human health and employment standards in the world on one hand because of the country's sacred commitment to the rule of law on the other.
Pebble must especially prevail when it comes to copper – to ensure America is self-sufficient when it comes to a metal that's absolutely essential to achieving a lower carbon future, without relying on China.
Finally, I believe it's past time the US environmental movement came to grips with the importance of mining in general, and the domestic production of copper in particular. Both are integral to combatting and adapting to climate change in a way that protects America's economic, military and environmental leadership in the world.
There is a lot riding on Alaska's Pebble mine. The whole country is watching.
Ronald W. Thiessen is President & CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., owner of the proposed Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum-rhenium-silver mine in Southwest Alaska.