Letters fly in latest scrap over potential Pebble investor

One third of the Alaska Legislature sent a letter to a Canadian mining company on Sept. 9 in an attempt to dissuade a potential investment in the Pebble mine project.

The correspondence from the bipartisan and bicameral group of 20 lawmakers is the latest in a series of letters to Vancouver-based Wheaton Precious Metals Corp. CEO Randy Smallwood over the past seven weeks from conservation and Bristol Bay-area Alaska Native organizations opposed to the project and Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, who sought to counter the negative messaging regarding Pebble with a July 30 letter.

The legislators — mostly Democrats, two Republicans and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, who changed his affiliation from Democrat to independent this past session — specifically responded to Dunleavy’s letter in which the governor stressed his slogan that “Alaska is open for business” and he did not want a potential investor in a major resource development project to be discouraged by those opposed to it.

“A fair, efficient and thorough permitting process, without interference and threats from project opponents, is essential to the future economic growth of Alaska,” Dunleavy wrote to Smallwood July 30. “I am committed to making that happen, and once appropriate permits are granted, I am equally committed to removing obstacles that would hinder immediate construction.”

The Pebble Partnership is in the midst of the multi-year federal environmental impact statement process to get a key construction authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the company would still need to obtain numerous other state and federal agency approvals before construction could commence.

According to Dunleavy’s letter, the investment Wheaton is purported to be considering would help Pebble get through the expensive permitting process.

Pebble leaders have openly acknowledged they need to secure a financially strong partner to move the project from concept to reality, as Pebble’s parent company and junior mining firm Northern Dynasty Ltd. simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to raise the several billion dollars that would be needed to construct the large mine and major support infrastructure.

The 20 lawmakers responded by retorting that “Alaska is — and always has been — open for business” in their letter to Smallwood, noting that the Alaska Constitution reserves resource ownership in the state to its citizens with a mandate that they be developed for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans. However, they emphasized that “fish are by far the single most important resource” in the Bristol Bay region.”

“In his letter, Gov. Dunleavy assures you that the State will actively defend your company’s investment from ‘interference’ and ‘frivolous and scurrilous attacks.’ Opposition to this project is both local and statewide, and is not frivolous, slanderous or interference,” they wrote. “As individual Alaskans our opposition to this project arises from the potentially severe social, economic, and cultural risks that Pebble Mine represents. As elected officials, our opposition to this project aligns with the interests of our constituents.”

The lawmakers continued to cite the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ oft-quoted remark that Pebble “is the wrong mine for the wrong place” and highlighted the fact that several large mining firms have already walked away from the project over the years after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to advance it. They also cited figures from a survey commissioned by Bristol Bay Native Corp., which also opposes Pebble, that found approximately 35 percent of Alaskans support Pebble’s development.

Pebble Partnership released its own survey early this year with figures showing the majority of Alaskans support its efforts.

The back-and-forth started July 24 when Bristol Bay-area commercial fishing and Native organizations along with several national conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent a letter to Smallwood to discourage a potential investment in Pebble.

Next came Dunleavy’s letter, followed by an Aug. 29 letter from BBNC CEO Jason Metrokin, which had much the same tone as the legislators’ letter, and finally the Sept. 9 letter.

A spokeswoman for Wheaton did not return calls or emails regarding the correspondence to the company.

BBNC Lands and Resources Vice President Dan Cheyette in a brief interview called it “entirely inappropriate” for the governor, who oversees the agencies that would be regulating Pebble, to send a letter “that is essentially cheerleading a potential investment in a project that has not yet been permitted.”

Resource development advocates similarly criticized former Gov. Bill Walker for taking a formal stance against Pebble, alleging state agencies under his watch would not give the project a fair shake.

Dunleavy has consistently taken a neutral stance on Pebble, while he has backed most all other resource development efforts in the state.

“While some in the Legislature may disagree, Governor Dunleavy and a large number of Alaskans believe projects should be allowed to follow a fair and transparent permitting process; one that is rigorous, merit-based and prescribed by law,” Dunleavy’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow wrote in response to the legislators’ letter.

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole wrote via email that the company has had conversations with several potential investors but he could not comment on specific prospective partners.

“We continue to have productive discussions with a range of companies about the project and when we have something formal to announce we will do so,” he wrote.

The lawmakers did not reference a 2014 ballot initiative that requires any large mining project in the Bristol Bay region to be formally approved by a vote of the Legislature. Voters approved the measure with 65 percent support.

Pebble leaders have repeatedly said they believe it is unconstitutional and the company will challenge it when it is necessary to do so.

Heatwole said the measure illegally gives “one branch of government (the Legislature) two bites at the apple” in regards to approving Pebble, as it is the Legislature that sets the permitting standards carried out by state agencies.

He added that even if it stands a legal test, he doesn’t believe legislators would want to “go on the record (with a vote) killing a job-creating, economically stimulating project” that had already met state permitting requirements.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/11/2019 - 10:39am

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