Pebble answers remain elusive

commentMay 25, 2012 

Are we going to decide whether the Pebble mine is developed based on competing advertisements?

Should the project be stopped because a report says it poses serious risks to the environment? Or maybe we will decide it's a "go" since it will surely provide many Alaska jobs.

We need a better way of deciding the many questions that arise from the Pebble proposal. Under the present system, based on the General Mining Act of 1872 enshrined in the Alaska Constitution, stake it and you get it. Under later enactments such as the National Environmental Policy Act and statutes on clean water, if you meet certain additional requirements, you get it.

The Pebble project is no ordinary mine. The value of the resources to be tapped approaches a trillion dollars. That's the same as all the credit card debt in the country or all the student loans. This value is more than all the value produced by past Alaska mining. Under other gauges of value, the product is worth more than the value of all the fish caught in Bristol Bay for more than a thousand years or would match the income of all the jobs in Alaska for a hundred.

That's not to say Alaskans get that value, far from it. One of the rarely asked and never answered questions is, what does Alaska get out of it? Clem Tillion, Alaska's foremost fisheries expert says he has no interest in the other questions until he starts to hear answers to that one. Sorry, jobs are great but not enough. In our weird economy, dependent on royalties and taxation from oil with little or no taxation beyond that, every new job means we split the pie more ways.

The stakes are huge and various yet the mine is a go if a couple of government employees, federal and state, or three out of five justices of the Alaska Supreme Court on appeal, decide that the mine satisfies the narrow criteria of the present law. What we need is a system for finding out whether the development of the Pebble prospect, in some form or other, is in the best interests of the state and its people. We need input at the ground floor on what that form will be.

The United States should be looking at it from the perspective of the best interests of the nation. There could be a conflict. Minerals produced at home displace imports and avoid worse environmental consequences abroad.

You can't just dismiss Pebble because it will do environmental harm. The TAPS line did environmental harm. Every four-wheeler and every road does harm. Even a walk in the woods does environmental harm. The questions involved are complex. Exactly what is Pebble proposing to do? What are the options and what would we like to see it do? Harm alone is not the decider. What are the hazards and what are the associated risks? What can be done to mitigate harm? In balance, does the benefit exceed the harm?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has undertaken an advance study. The study finds that the mine could hurt salmon runs. Well, duh. That's not the question, it's the premise. The study asks whether the mine will use state-of-the-art operations, or standard engineering practices. Good question, or maybe a well-advised warning: authorizing this mine is not going to be business as usual.

The Pebble Partnership complained that the report was a "federal intrusion," like the feds have no interest?

The state administration tipped its hand by objecting. Though not conclusive, the state administration seems to be saying it starts, at a minimum, with a pro-mine bias.

Before making decisions we need broadly framed cost benefit analyses, developed and evaluated by people who have not made up their mind. This is the biggest problem of all. In a state loaded with stakeholders defined by fishing, whose citizens are looking at an industry that must admit to visible environmental catastrophes and owners with a lamentable environmental record but strong business and political ties, who participates in the decisional process?

John Havelock served as Alaska's attorney general during the development of the trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS).

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