My training and expertise are in economics and finance, but from time to time — when needed — I know how to do battle. For over a decade, I have taken on the battle against the Pebble mine because, more than any other development proposal in our state's history, it threatens to forfeit to foreign mining companies an invaluable part of our heritage, something Alaskans cannot afford to lose and will never stop defending: Bristol Bay, the last great salmon fishery on the planet.
No one said this battle would be easy. In fact, a decade ago, to uninformed investors, Pebble seemed like a safe bet. Its major early partners — Anglo-American, Rio Tinto and Mitsubishi — were as formidable a mining trio as you will find anywhere. Alaska is a state with a long history of mining, big enough for development of all kinds if done responsibly, with respect for the natural resources and the wide-open spaces that attracted us and our ancestors in the first place. Alaska was attractive to miners in the past.
However, after 10 years of intense but successful opposition led by Alaskans, what was the Pebble Partnership now consists of a sole remaining partner, a Canadian exploration company called Northern Dynasty Minerals. Northern Dynasty is surviving month to month, looking for gullible new partners and potential investors, ideally with a short memory.
Northern Dynasty has no financial or technical capacity to actually develop the Pebble mine. Its share price value has plummeted from a high of $21 per share six years ago to under $2 per share today.
But the Pebble mine is, and has always been, doomed, and there are three fundamental reasons why.
What are the three essential things about Pebble that Alaskans understand, that the former Pebble partners learned the hard way, that Northern Dynasty probably now realizes but is not saying, and that, if you are a potential investor, you need to know?
• First, any project that threatens our salmon has no future. Bristol Bay and the watershed that feeds it are the home of the world's greatest, most productive wild salmon fishery on the planet. It produces 30 million to 60 million wild salmon a year — 60 million just this summer — and it generates $1.5 billion a year in revenue, while supporting an estimated 14,000 jobs. It is one of our most powerful and sustainable economic engines, and we will not risk it.
• Second, because the proposed mine would be built in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, it puts our salmon at risk, and there is nothing Northern Dynasty can do to change that. It can promise to design a smaller mine, to build the mine in phases, to engineer a fail-safe containment, or even to enhance the salmon habitat — and in fact, it is promising these things right now to anyone who will listen. But ultimately those promises are nothing but public relations. There is no way to build, operate, and maintain an open-pit mine on the scale of Pebble without damaging Bristol Bay's salmon habitat; and anyone who believes otherwise just is not paying attention.
• Third, by unprecedented numbers, Alaskans have made clear since 2014 that they do not want the Pebble mine and will never stop fighting it. In 2014, 65 percent of voters statewide approved the Bristol Bay Forever initiative prohibiting mining projects in the Bristol Bay watershed that threaten salmon or their habitat.
In fact, the Bristol Bay Forever initiative won every single voting precinct in Alaska. It is now the law of this state, overwhelmingly endorsed by the voters, and unmistakable in its clarity and purpose. For years, numerous polls have shown broad-based opposition to the Pebble mine within the Bristol Bay region — among Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen, businesses and political perspectives across the spectrum. Numbers like this in opposition to development are rarely seen in this state, as any informed investor understands.
And the opposition is not going to go away. It has been said that before the Pebble mine came along, many of us had never met a mine we did not like. As a resource state, mining is an industry we need and depend on. But we do not need the Pebble mine, or any mine like it, in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. As a lifelong Alaskan, I am determined to continue to work toward stopping it.
No one ever expected this battle to be easy, but it is a battle Alaskans have to win, however long it takes, for our state, our salmon, our communities, our people and our future.
Bob Gillam is a lifelong Alaskan and CEO of McKinley Capital Management, LLC, a global asset manager based in Alaska with clients all over the world. Gillam was one of the prime sponsors of the Bristol Bay Initiative and has worked for more than a decade to protect the salmon and people of Bristol Bay from the Pebble mine.
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