Rural Alaska

Biden administration moves to review Ambler Road plans

The Biden administration is moving to review a Trump-era decision supporting development of a controversial, 200-mile industrial road in Northwest Alaska, a setback for the effort to access deposits of valuable minerals in the region.

Newly filed Biden administration court documents raise concerns about the analysis that led to the issuance of a federal right-of-way permit for the road to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state agency. The concerns center on the needs of Alaska Native tribes in the region that rely on subsistence hunting and fishing.

The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Interior Department, filed the documents on Tuesday in a federal court case asking Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason to allow the agency to revisit a study conducted during the Trump administration that allowed the road to advance.

In a statement, the Interior Department also said it intends to suspend right-of-way for the road during the review, “to ensure that no ground-disturbing activity takes place that could potentially impact the resources in question.”

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading the effort to build the road, which is expected to cost more than $500 million and would stretch from the Dalton Highway to deposits of zinc and critical minerals such as copper in the Ambler Mining District.

[Earlier coverage: Proposed Ambler project underscores promise and peril of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act]

It would link Alaska’s skeletal road system north of Fairbanks to the district, ending near Ambler and other villages. It would cut through caribou habitat and many rivers and streams. A portion would cross the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

A spokeswoman with Interior declined to say how long the review might take.

Following additional administrative review, the Biden administration could affirm, alter or terminate the right-of-way permits, the filing says.

The authority and Ambler Metals, a company pursuing mineral prospects in the region, recently disclosed plans to spend nearly $60 million this year advancing the road and a pair of mine prospects.

Alan Weitzner, executive director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, said late Tuesday that the state agency is reviewing the filing and could not immediately comment.

Conservation and tribal groups sued the Trump administration in separate lawsuits to stop the road. They assert the gravel road will pollute the land and water and harm wildlife and people in the region.

The lawsuits argued that the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies violated laws in decisions leading up to the issuance of the right-of-way permit.

Those federal agencies now realize it’s appropriate to “revisit the challenged decisions,” according to the 24-page filing, made in the case brought by the tribal groups. Additional scrutiny while defending the case “has illuminated legal flaws” that should be reconsidered with more administrative review, the Biden administration’s filing says.

The deficiencies included insufficient analysis of project impacts to subsistence uses that are protected under federal law, and impacts to properties with religious and cultural value to tribes, the filing says.

An analysis conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act needs to be supplemented as well, the filing says.

The filing also says the review lacked sufficient discussion of the road’s impacts to vegetation that caribou feed on, and how fish will be affected by the road and mining operations requiring large amounts of groundwater and stream water. The region relies on caribou and fish for subsistence.

The Bureau of Land Management also did not provide substantive responses to tribes or follow up after government-to-government consultations with tribes, among other shortcomings, the Biden administration says in its filings.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and other tribal entities who had sued the federal government over its approvals for the road urged the Biden administration and the state to drop the project.

“The 200-plus mile Ambler road represents a fundamental threat to our people, our subsistence way of life and our cultural resources,” said Brian Ridley, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. “We appreciate that the federal government recognized the flaws in the previous administration’s decisions to permit the road.”

“Our lives here are only possible because of the subsistence resources that also exist here,” said said Frank Thompson, first chief of Evansville. “The previous administration ignored our knowledge of subsistence resources that exist on these lands and the grave threat to those resources posed by the proposed industrial road.”

A statement from conservation groups that also sued over the road said the Biden administration did not go far enough.

“We are encouraged to see the Biden administration acknowledge the permitting process left serious gaps in analysis and failed to adequately consult with and gain consent from Brooks Range communities, but we are also deeply disappointed that they didn’t go far enough by taking back these illegal permits,” Lisa Baraff, program director at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, said in a statement. “This leaves some real questions about the administration’s commitment to the values they campaigned on.”

Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation said in a statement that the filing will lead to months of additional environmental analysis, when permitting for the road began during the Obama administration.

“We will hold the administration to an aggressive timeline for the completion of this analysis and expect them to allow as much work on the project as possible to continue, even as that occurs,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.

Rep. Don Young said President Joe Biden is attempting to bury the Ambler Road in the federal bureaucracy, and Sen. Dan Sullivan said, “as has been the case with many of this administration’s executive actions, the only winners are the far-left radical environmental groups that want to shut down all Alaska economic opportunities.”

The delegation pointed out that the White House on Tuesday issued a statement saying it was working with companies to expand the supply chain for U.S.-produced critical minerals such as those needed for computers and electric vehicles.

In a statement late Tuesday, the office of Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy decried the move as “another federal attempt to block economic and natural resource development.”

“The Biden Administration has opened yet another front in its war on Alaska,” Dunleavy said. “You would think President Biden would want to improve access to American sources of copper and other strategic minerals that are needed in our combined efforts to increase renewables. Instead, actions like this only serve to push development to Third World nations that don’t have the environmental ethic that Alaskans have.”

The Biden administration has taken steps to undo other major Trump-era decisions that were designed to promote resource development in Alaska.

It is reviewing the Trump administration’s decision that set the stage for oil exploration in a corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and suspended 10-year federal leases issued to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

It has announced plans to roll back the Trump administration’s decision to put millions more acres on the table for possible oil drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, west of ANWR, and also has said it would restore pre-Trump-era protections designed to restrict logging in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

The administration has also taken some legal actions that have upset environmentalists. It has filed legal briefs in support of the King Cove road, through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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