Pebble keeps reshuffling the deck — but it’s a bad bet

“The Gambler,” perhaps Kenny Rogers’ most well-known country song, cautions poker players “to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” It is a lesson the Pebble Limited Partnership has yet to learn in its misguided effort to permit and build the proposed Pebble mine. The reality is that Pebble would threaten Bristol Bay’s existing multi-billion-dollar fishing economy and subsistence culture and is a project that a majority of Alaskans don’t want to see built. It is long past due for Pebble to acknowledge these hard truths and fold its hand.

It is understandable if you have not thought much about Pebble in the last five months. A permit denial from the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers should have put an end to the project. Instead, Pebble and its Canada-based parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals are appealing the permit denial and issuing press releases that extoll the alleged virtues of the mine and promote its prospects. They continue to make claims that run counter to the Corps’ findings that Pebble would cause significant degradation to the aquatic resources of Bristol Bay and that it is not in the public interest.

When the Biden administration transitioned to power in January, Pebble and Northern Dynasty Minerals shuffled the deck yet again, portraying Pebble and its potential minerals as key to America’s green economy. This is yet another bluff, as company representatives have long admitted that any minerals excavated at the project would head to Asia for refining and would not see American industries unless repurchased from the refiners.

No one should be fooled by Pebble’s claims. The company is, in fact, holding a very bad hand. In the last several months, multiple investors filed class-action lawsuits against Northern Dynasty Minerals alleging the company misled investors about the feasibility of the project and its chances of obtaining a federal permit. The price of Northern Dynasty Minerals stock also continues to hover near an all-time low. And the Dunleavy administration, which has bent over backward to support Pebble over the last two-and-a-half years, had its appeal of the Corps’ permit denial rejected outright.

Meanwhile, the recent news out of Bristol Bay about the fishery remains very positive. Projections for the 2021 Bristol Bay commercial sockeye salmon season are robust — 13% higher than the 10-year average — suggesting another great run for the Bay’s commercial fishermen. 51 million reds are projected to return this summer, with a commercial and subsistence harvest of nearly 40 million fish.

The annual commercial harvest in Bristol Bay accounts for 57% of the sockeye salmon sold around the world. That number is based on a new report from respected economic consulting firm McKinley Research Group. McKinley’s report pegged the total annual economic value of the Bristol Bay fishery at $2.2 billion, which supports 15,000 jobs — both increases from previous analyses. The report also found that Bristol Bay sockeye support a subsistence way of life for 700 families in the Bristol Bay region.

And last week, a letter from 50 investors representing more than $100 billion in assets had this to say about Pebble and what it could mean for both the global mining and fishing industries:

“We are concerned that if large-scale mining, such as the Pebble Mine, occurs in the Bristol Bay watershed, that it could cast a cloud over mining projects in general — even responsible and safe ones. This has the potential of increasing mining costs generally and may put into question appropriate mining projects. Such occurrences could be destabilizing to the global mining and fishing industries and consequently not helpful for long-term economic growth.”

Pebble will threaten the 50-plus million salmon that return to Bristol Bay every year. It is an unacceptable risk for an economic engine that drives employment for the entire region. And, as the aforementioned investors recognize, it could “cast a cloud” over an important global industry such as mining — even for responsible projects developed in more suitable locations than at the headwaters of the world’s most productive salmon fishery.

If past is prologue, we do not expect Pebble to succumb to reality and fold its hand by abandoning its mining plans. But make no mistake: Pebble Mine is, and will always be, a bad bet for Alaskans. More importantly, it is high time for the federal and state government to start discussing long-term solutions for Bristol Bay that forever removes the threat of large-scale mining projects in the region and generates alternate forms of revenue for the state of Alaska.

Indy Walton is a third generation commercial fisherman with 38 years experience, captain of F/V Sniper, Owner of Last Cast Lodge and financial advisor with Edward Jones Investments.

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