Massive spending on lobbyists gives foreign mining interests unfair advantage over everyday Alaskans
A new compilation by Cook Inletkeeper from U.S. Senate Lobbying Reports shows the Canadian mining interests behind the proposed Pebble mine have spent more than $15 million since 2007 on high-priced lobbyists to buy their way to federal permits.
And since 2017 – with the political stars aligned under President Donald Trump and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy – Pebble has upped the ante, pouring more than $8.6 million dollars into beltway lobbyists to push an unpopular and beleaguered project across the line for federal permits.
“The Pebble people are paying special interest insiders to buy federal permits from the Trump Administration, plain and simple,” said Bob Shavelson, Inletkeeper’s Advocacy Director. “It’s disgusting and it’s wrong, but it’s how big foreign corporations get what they want these days. And politicians like Dan Sullivan have done nothing to stand up for Alaskans.”
Alaskans overwhelmingly oppose the proposed Pebble mine. During public testimony on the draft EIS, over 75% of commenters opposed the mine. And a recent poll found 62% of Alaskans stand against Pebble.
This Friday (July 24), the Trump Administration will issue the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Pebble mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to the world’s greatest and most lucrative salmon runs. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery has roared to life this season, with more than 55 million sockeye returning to the unpocked watershed that has supported them for millenia.
The EPA can and should veto the project under its Clean Water Act authority, and Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski should press them hard to do it. If not, the EIS will pave the way for additional permits – including the vital federal wetlands permit to allow Pebble to fill and destroy thousands of acres of prime salmon habitat.
In comments on the draft EIS, state and federal agency experts raised glaring red flags – in a political landscape where such pushback was risky – calling for more and better science.
The Department of the Interior – an agency not renown for resource protection – said the draft EIS was so deficient that it “precludes meaningful analysis” and it called for a complete do-over of the EIS.
Instead of spending money on more science to protect Bristol Bay and the countless families who rely on it, however, Pebble spent its dwindling reserves on …. more lobbyists.
So, what did Pebble buy with its extravagant spending on fancy lobbyists? While quid pro quos are difficult to nail down – because lobbyists and politicians often make their careers by covering their tracks – a revealing story by E & E News in August 2019 paints a damning example.
In a piece entitled “EPA deleted scientists’ concerns about Pebble analysis,” E & E News wrote:
““EPA scientists wanted their agency to ask for a new environmental review of the proposed Pebble mine project but were overridden by political staffers, according to several sources and a key document obtained by E&E News.”
The scientists gave their agency two options for input on the proposed Pebble mine. The Trump administration picked the one that did not threaten to delay a final decision on the Alaska project until after the 2020 election.
A draft of those comments obtained by E&E News shows EPA career staff recommended that the agency ask the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new environmental review for the massive copper and gold mine planned upstream from Alaska’s premier salmon fishery. The draft comments also included harsher and more specific criticisms of the environmental review than what the agency ultimately sent to the Army Corps.
The June 7 document’s “recommended option” was that EPA ask for “a revised or supplemental environmental impact statement” (EIS) based on “major deficiencies” in the preliminary analysis.
“Further developing the underlying information is important to ensure that the EIS is adequate to fully inform decision-makers and the public,” the draft said. “Further developing this information is relevant to environmental concerns and bearing on the proposed action and its impact.”
That recommendation was not included in EPA’s final comments sent to the Army Corps less than a month later. Sources say the request remained in later drafts of the comment letter that were sent for approval to political appointees, who removed the language.
Sources say career employees were never told why the request was removed from the final comments.
“I don’t like to see politics overriding the science,” said an EPA source about sharing the draft letter. The source requested anonymity out of fear of “retribution” from EPA.”” (emphasis added).
This is but one example how the oversized influence of a well-connected corporation has changed the trajectory of permit decisions for the Pebble mine. Of course the overall influence of more than $15 million dollars – and more than $8.6 million dollars since Trump took office – is certainly more sweeping but largely unknowable.
In the end, Pebble faces a long road for a project unlikely to see a shovel in the ground. Northern Dynasty – the principal behind the Pebble Limited Partnership – is a junior Canadian mining interest which has never operated a mine. Since 2003, it has fumbled and stumbled its way through the process to get its massive gold and copper mine permitted.
Along the way, five major mining companies – Anglo-American, Rio Tinto, Tech Cominco, Mitsubishi and First Quantum Minerals – have spent hundreds of millions of dollars taking a hard look at the project. And they’ve all walked away.
Why? There are several reasons. First and foremost, the project isn’t viable. While Pebble likes to push around rosy press releases to dupe unwitting investors, the company has refused time and again to produce a financial feasibility study to show its project can turn a profit and benefit Alaskans. Even longtime mining industry experts say the project’s a loser.
Second, Pebble lacks the social license to operate in Bristol Bay. Pebble has a long history lying to Alaskans, and Alaskans simply don’t want a giant festering boil smack dab in the heart of the world’s greatest salmon fishery.
And finally, EPA’s authority to veto Pebble’s wetlands and fish habitat destruction remains a backstop to the most egregious damage Pebble might dredge-up.
But for now, Pebble’s over-the-top spending on lobbyists has the Trump Administration poised to rubber-stamp a horribly-flawed EIS, and Pebble CEO Tom Collier stands ready to collect his $12.5 million “extraordinary bonus” for engineering a rushed review.
Soon the fight will turn to the state level, and if Pebble and its investors think the opposition to this ridiculous project has been stifling to date, they better hire an aircraft carrier full of lobbyists for the long slog ahead.
Because Alaskans will never stop fighting for the very things that make us Alaskans.