JUNEAU — The former public face of the Pebble mine project is advancing closer to a confirmation vote as head of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, despite a surge of public testimony in opposition.
On Friday, the Alaska Senate Resources Committee recommended that the nomination of Jason Brune by Gov. Mike Dunleavy be forwarded to a confirmation vote during a joint session of the Alaska House and Alaska Senate.
The recommendation, largely a formality, came after one hour of questions from senators and one hour of public testimony primarily from opponents of his confirmation. Of 37 people who testified during Friday’s hearing, according to staff for Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks and a member of the committee, 34 were opposed to Brune’s confirmation.
Most of the public testifiers said they doubted Brune was an appropriate choice because he spent three years as public affairs and government relations manager for Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining conglomerates, when that company was a partner in the Pebble mine project. That mine, planned for the headwaters of several Bristol Bay rivers, would require DEC permits to proceed.
Under state law, the DEC is charged with controlling pollution in order to “enhance the health, safety and welfare” of Alaskans. It oversees food safety and sanitation as well as the state’s oil-spill and mining-contamination programs.
“The DEC needs a leader that is well-grounded in environmental conservation, and not a past employee of a mining company that will be involved in permitting a potentially destructive mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay,” Grant Fairbanks of Bethel said as he testified by phone.
According to his resume, Brune spent 11 years with the Resource Development Council before joining Anglo American in 2011. As an employee of that company, he served as the public face of the Pebble project, appearing at public events and in front of the Alaska Legislature as a proponent.
In 2013, Anglo American dropped support for Pebble Mine, leaving the project in the hands of its remaining backer, Northern Dynasty Minerals.
“Ultimately, Anglo American pulled out of the project and took my job with them,” Brune told legislators Friday.
Under questioning from Kawasaki, Brune said that if Pebble mine permits were to come across his desk, “I will evaluate that project, as I will all projects, according to how the law tells me to evaluate it.”
He said he no longer has a financial stake in Pebble mine or any other resource development project in Alaska, something confirmed by his financial disclosure form.
“I have no financial interest in the company that is trying to invest and build the Pebble project. I have in fact sold all of the stocks for any mining or oil and gas companies that are doing business in Alaska,” he said.
Brune’s wife is employed by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., according to his disclosure form.
After leaving Anglo American, Brune joined the regional Native corporation CIRI as its lands and resources director.
He said his personal environmental ethic is “think globally, develop locally,” which he explained to lawmakers as the idea that resource development will inevitably happen, so it should happen in places with strict environmental controls, such as Alaska.
Most public testifiers disagreed with his approach.
“His whole background is too heavily weighted in favor of mining,” Mark Niver said, calling into Friday’s hearing from the North Slope.
Michele Martin of Anchorage said the state has ample organizations and agencies dedicated to economic development, and that should not be the role of DEC.
“I would submit that the job of the commissioner of the DEC is not to be focused on development, which is usually a code word for turning the living world into dead commodities,” she said.
“What we need in the Department of Environmental Conservation is people who are committed to preserving the natural world in Alaska.”
Brune continues to serve as DEC’s commissioner-designee and will be named DEC’s permanent commissioner if he receives a majority vote of a joint House-Senate meeting at a date to be determined.