DEC nominee: Experience a plus, not a problem
Jason Brune insists his time working for a former investor in the Pebble mine project and advocating for other resource developments in Alaska is experience that benefits his newest role leading the Department of Environmental Conservation, despite claims by many detractors that it should disqualify him from consideration.
Among the first appointments to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s cabinet in November, Brune told Senate Resources Committee members during a Jan. 25 hearing on his confirmation that the questions regarding his professional background are “appropriate and fair,” while also noting that he has no financial interests in the Pebble Limited Partnership and has sold all of his stocks in oil and mining companies that work in the state.
He highlighted a belief that Alaska has the most stringent environmental protection standards in the world and as DEC commissioner he demands everyone in the state be held to them.
“My personal environmental ethic is ‘think globally, develop locally.’ I believe that provided that the companies that are trying to invest here do uphold the highest environmental standards, we should work with them to try to allow that investment and the development of those resources to occur here,” he said.
Brune worked as the U.S. public affairs manager in Anchorage for London-based mining major Anglo American from 2011-14. Anglo American was a 50 percent partner in the Pebble project and invested more than $540 million in exploration and pre-development work at Pebble before announcing it would walk away from the project in September 2013.
Before agreeing to lead DEC, Brune most recently worked as the lands and resources director for Cook Inlet Region Inc. He also spent more than a decade with the Resource Development Council for Alaska with about half of that time as executive director. The RDC is an organization that promotes Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, timber, tourism and fishing industries.
Public testimony during the Senate hearing was overwhelmingly against Brune’s confirmation as DEC commissioner. Nearly all the individuals that testified in opposition to his confirmation cited his prior work history, contending he could not be objective in reviewing permit applications Pebble would need to submit to DEC before it can develop the large copper and gold mine.
DEC is often most visible through its Spill Prevention and Response, or SPAR, Division, but the department also has primacy over several federal Clean Air and Clean Water Act programs as well as overseeing drinking water and food safety in the state.
Opposition in written testimony offered to the Resources Committee before the hearing also centered on permitting Pebble. Brune received written support from industry groups such as the Alaska Miners Association, the Council of Alaska Producers and the Alaska Independent Power Producers Association.
State commissioner-designees must be confirmed by a majority of legislators in a joint House and Senate vote that is usually held in spring near the end of the legislative session.
Brune said in a Jan. 11 interview prior to the hearing that he doesn’t have a position on the highly contentious mine plan.
“As a regulator I have the requirement to objectively look at what Pebble has to do to go through the process, so no, I don’t support the Pebble project. I don’t oppose the Pebble project. I think they deserve to have a fair hearing,” he said.
The results of an annual poll of Alaskans by the Republican-led Senate majority caucus on current policy issues show that 61 percent of poll respondents oppose development of Pebble even if the company can secure all the requisite environmental permits.
An outlier in the debate over Brune’s work history, Icicle Seafoods spokeswoman Julianne Curry, who is also a former executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, wrote in support of his confirmation.
“We have worked with Mr. Brune in the past and have found him to be knowledgeable and interested in finding solutions to problems facing Alaska. His hard-working nature and ability to cut directly into issues will help make him an asset in DEC,” Curry wrote.
Brune said his experience in the resource industries can be beneficial to leading DEC and he believes it’s one of the reasons the Dunleavy administration asked him to apply for the job.
“I’m not going to rubber stamp any permit for any project — for Pebble, for an oil and gas permit, for a fishing permit. I’m going to look at it and I’m going to make sure that they’re doing what they need to do to protect the environment but that we’re working alongside them to ensure that they’re given a fair process and that we’re partners in bringing responsible resource development jobs to the state,” he said in an interview.
Brune’s undergraduate education is in biology and is what originally brought him to Alaska. He spent a summer in the early 1990s as an intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cleaning and monitoring sea otters impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.
He later came close to a master’s degree in environmental science from Alaska Pacific University, but never completed his thesis.
“(The otter work) was very impactful on me because I saw, of course, how resource development can be done in the worst way possible. The impacts of the oil spill, we never, as Alaskans, want to see that again. That never should have happened and it’ll never happen again hopefully and we need to put protections in place to make sure it never happens again,” Brune said.
On other issues, he said DEC needs to be adequately funded so it can adjudicate permit applications but at the same time he and DEC division directors are working with Dunleavy’s Budget Director Donna Arduin to determine what the department can and can’t afford to do when the state is faced with major deficits and dwindling savings.
One of the programs Brune suggested could be on the chopping block is the Ocean Ranger program, which he has heard there isn’t much support for continuing. The program was established in 2006 via a voter initiative and requires certified marine engineers or individuals with expertise in marine safety and environmental protection to monitor marine discharges from large cruise ships operating in the state.
DEC also has other regulations and sampling programs to monitor cruise ship discharges, according to the Ocean Ranger web page.
“There are things that in these fiscally austere times that we have to ensure are still appropriate,” Brune said. “We have things on the books that are unfunded mandates or that are not necessarily doing anything to protect the environment; they’re just adding regulatory hurdles for companies and we have to evaluate those.”
Brune also stressed a belief that “local problems are best met by local solutions,” particularly noting that he hopes DEC can successfully implement recommendations on how to best improve at times dangerously poor winter air quality in the Fairbanks area from a local stakeholder group.
He continued to say that he expects the issue of PFAS contamination in drinking water supplies, particularly in rural Alaska, to be a growing issue DEC will have to address during his tenure if he is confirmed.
Per- and polyflouroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals, are artificial chemicals used, among other things, as highly effective fire suppressants at airports. Brune said DEC is working with DOT to test wells near airports in several rural Southeast and Western Alaska communities and has found the contaminants in each well that has been tested, in addition to Fairbanks.
“I think we need to be a resource for the citizens of Alaska to give them the confidence that the water they’re drinking, that the things they’re doing, are safe,” he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].