Gov. Mike Dunleavy has not formally taken a position on the controversial proposed Pebble mine project in Southwest Alaska, but a Thursday report from CNN adds fuel to critics of the mine who argue that his actions suggest he supports it.
Documents uncovered by CNN indicate the governor used ghostwritten language provided by Pebble in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency currently weighing issuing a key permit for the mine’s construction, and in letters to potential mining investors, among others.
Asked Friday by a reporter if he supports Pebble, the governor said he supports a fair environmental review of the mine, a large copper, gold and molybdenum project proposed in the Bristol Bay region that also supports Alaska’s most valuable salmon fishery.
“I support the process,” Dunleavy said, speaking to reporters by phone after stepping off a flight from the nation’s capitol Friday evening.
Dunleavy said a project that is harmful to Alaskans or the environment won’t be approved, including Pebble.
He acknowledged he can see how some Alaskans would conclude, based on CNN’s report, that he supports Pebble.
“I’m not trying to be silly, but there’s a lot of conclusions, many of them false, that people have drawn about myself here in the last year, but yes, I understand what you’re saying," Dunleavy said.
[Above: Watch the full CNN report]
Dunleavy said the purpose of CNN’s “little news piece," in his opinion, was to “portray some nefarious method or reasons for the issue involving Pebble.”
The CNN report, based on a public records request the television network submitted to the governor’s office, included these examples of close collaboration between the Dunleavy administration and Pebble:
• On April 26, a two-page letter signed by the governor and addressed to the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used virtually the same language as a draft sent by Shalon Harrington, Pebble’s chief of staff, to an aide of the governor, CNN reported.
In the letter, the governor urged Col. Phillip Borders to not extend the public comment period for the mine, something mine opponents sought at the time.
The governor’s letter included lines provided by Pebble that were written for the governor in the first-person voice, the report shows.
“When I took office, my top priority was to grow Alaska’s economy by letting the world know that Alaska was open for business, and to encourage communities across the globe to invest in our state,” both letters read, according to documents posted by CNN.
The Corps in May extended the time for public comment after concerns were raised by Alaska’s U.S. senators, adding 30 days to the 90-day period.
• On July 30, Dunleavy sent a letter to Wheaton Precious Metals, a company weighing an investment in the mine, after Wheaton began receiving opposition from conservation groups. Dunleavy told Wheaton’s chief executive that the state would support a decision by the company to invest in the mine.
The letter, signed by the governor, “used language that largely reflected" a draft letter Harrington with Pebble sent to the governor’s office the day before, CNN said.
“A fair, efficient and thorough permitting process, without interference and threats from project opponents, is essential to the future economic growth of Alaska. I am committed to making that happen,” read part of the governor’s letter, echoing Pebble’s words, CNN said.
• In a letter dated Feb. 25 to a potential mining investor in Canada, the governor “included some of the exact language” from a draft provided to his office by the chief executive of Pebble Limited, CNN reported.
“My administration and commissioners are committed to responsibly developing Alaska’s resources for the benefit of Alaskans,” one similar section in the governor’s letter read, according to CNN. “If you want to work, I want to find an opportunity to make it happen.”
On Feb. 21, Pebble CEO Tom Collier had emailed the draft letter to Dunleavy’s office. On Feb. 23, a Dunleavy staffer emailed a copy of the governor’s letter to Collier.
• The Pebble Limited Partnership communicated with Dunleavy before he was elected, CNN reported. In September 2018, Harrington in an email thanked the Dunleavy campaign for its “willingness to reach out” to the office of Vice President Mike Pence. She said a connection between the governor and the vice president could “make a difference,” according to CNN.
Collier told a Dunleavy adviser in one email: “You and the Gov could not possibly have been more supportive of our project,” CNN reported.
Dunleavy told CNN that “it is common practice for an administration to request briefing materials on a specific project.”
He told Alaska reporters on Friday that on many resource-based projects, “there are discussions with investors and with those interested in the project on both sides of the issue. There are discussions, review of papers, review of information, so I don’t think it’s unusual that that occurs.”
The governor said that he didn’t “necessarily agree” the language in his letters was verbatim.
Dunleavy said he wants to see what the science, and the environmental review of the project, reveals.
“Alaska’s sole concept as a state was predicated upon its ability to develop its resources, and so if were not going to be allowed to do that, then the future of Alaska, more than any other state in this country, is in doubt," Dunleavy said. "As governor, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we follow all the regulatory processes ... and see what the studies and what the data tell us.”
Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with Pebble, said the project is not seeking special treatment and has not begun the process of applying for permits at the state level. He said CNN has previously “sorted through information to push a specific narrative against the project and repeatedly ignored relevant factual information.”
“Many industries and organizations work with public policy makers on a range of issues,” Heatwole said in an emailed statement on Friday. “Elected leaders seek background briefings, have questions, and when asked to help frequently seek additional information or assistance as most have a wide array of issues they are addressing at any point in time."
“This is what we mean when we told CNN that this is a common practice,” Heatwole said.
The process that led to the potential block of the mine by the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama — often called a “pre-emptive veto” — was a “poor, politically driven process,” Heatwole said. He said previous statewide leaders have also had “heartburn” about the EPA using the rare procedure.
Scott Kendall, former chief of staff to Gov. Bill Walker and counsel to the campaign to recall Dunleavy, said it’s one thing for an administration to copy language for small, non-controversial items, say, if a nonprofit needs a supportive letter from the governor and submits talking points.
But Walker, who opposed Pebble, would not have allowed it with an important issue such as Pebble or oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he said.
“It’s nothing I’ve seen done,” Kendall said.
Groups from the Bristol Bay region that are against the mine accused the governor of lobbying for Pebble Limited, according to a statement on Friday.
The governor has become “a puppet for the Pebble Partnership” who is willing to betray fellow Alaskans for Pebble’s benefit, said Katherine Carscallen, director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. “We’ve been told for more than a decade to trust the permitting process, but Gov. Dunleavy’s close relationship with Pebble makes it clear that we cannot trust the state of Alaska to uphold a fair and science-based permitting process that protects the public interest."