A controversial 200-mile mining road in northern Alaska advanced Wednesday as the board of a state-owned corporation agreed to split $70 million in pre-construction costs with a mining company interested in using the road.
The Ambler Road, a project of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, would connect the Dalton Highway to a region of northwest Alaska that holds several large metal mining prospects.
According to a proposed timeline, construction could begin by the middle of the decade, but the project faces practical and legal hurdles before then.
The road is opposed by environmentalists and local residents who oppose the effects it would have on a region of Alaska that includes Gates of the Arctic National Park.
AIDEA does not own the entire path of the planned road, which would cross land controlled by several different owners, including Doyon Inc., the regional Native corporation for Interior Alaska.
In a unanimous vote on Wednesday, AIDEA’s board of directors approved spending $35 million on predevelopment work needed to solve those right-of-way issues, permitting problems and other matters.
Another $35 million will be contributed by Ambler Metals LLC, a firm co-owned by mining companies based in Canada and Australia.
Ambler Metals said president and CEO Ramzi Fawaz was unavailable to talk by phone Wednesday. The company asked for questions to be emailed and did not respond to that email by 5 p.m.
Bernie Karl, a member of AIDEA’s board of directors, was enthusiastic about Wednesday’s action, saying it would spur economic development.
“I think that this might be the best thing that we’ve done in a while. It’s the best thing for Alaska,” he said.
“This is the future. This is the future of our state. This is the future of our next generation, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Two lawsuits have been filed to block the project. Late last year, a collection of Interior villages and a group of environmental organizations sued the federal government in separate actions. Each suit claims the federal government improperly granted permission for the road.
The Trump administration granted that permission, but even if the Biden administration changes the federal government’s attitude toward the road, the state of Alaska, AIDEA and Ambler Metals have filed documents that would allow them to take over the legal defense.
The Northern Alaska Environmental Center is the lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. Clean Water and Mining Program Manager Solaris Gillispie said the money spent by AIDEA is “$35 million they shifted away from Alaska’s small businesses.” Most of AIDEA’s business consists of low-interest loans to Alaska corporations.
Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic Program Director for the Wilderness Society, was listening to Wednesday’s meeting and remarked at the secretiveness of the board’s actions. The board considered the Ambler Road and other issues — including its recent bids on several oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — in private session.
Members entered open session for only a few minutes after noon to vote publicly before returning to closed session for further deliberations.
“As a member of the public, we have no idea whether they addressed the important issues adequately,” she said.