ALASKA INDUSTRY UNDER FIRE
Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Irwin spoke out recently against the growing trend of anti-resource development initiatives in Alaska, and defended the state’s resource permitting and regulatory system as effective, fair and responsible.
“Anyone willing to connect the dots can see that our resource industry is being targeted by multiple efforts to deprive developers of the tools they need to operate in Alaska,” Irwin said.
“Our Constitution mandates responsible resource development for the benefit of the people of Alaska, and I take significant exception to efforts to interfere with that mandate or the corresponding public process,” Irwin noted. “While it is clear that we must protect our clean water, healthy fish runs, and subsistence opportunities, we also have an obligation to all residents to provide economic opportunities from state and federal lands and for private lands, including Native regional and village corporation land.”
Irwin, whose responsibilities include management and oversight of the state’s oil, gas, mineral, forest and agricultural resources for multiple uses, noted a number of anti-development efforts that have recently come to public notice:
- A statewide ballot initiative was submitted to the lieutenant governor’s office asking voters to deny any large mines from using state water in Southwestern Alaska. Such an initiative would block development of not only the Pebble copper-gold prospect, but virtually all other future mineral development on millions of acres of state and private land, including Native corporation lands.
- A lawsuit was filed last year to block the Rock Creek gold project on Native corporation and private land near Nome.
- Several municipalities have proposed initiatives which would significantly restrict the sound development of state and private lands. These include a proposed Bethel City Council ordinance banning the transportation of cyanide inside Bethel’s borders, and the Denali Borough’s proposed prohibition on coal-bed methane exploration.
- A lawsuit recently blocked Southeast Alaska’s Kensington gold project, halting progress on that mine despite millions of dollars spent to comply with all environmental guidance provided by regulatory agencies.
- Legislators have introduced several bills which would obstruct or bar mining. One would block mines and most other resource development projects from using any water that runs into Bristol Bay or supports the bay’s salmon, and another would create a new 7.7 million acre wildlife refuge with special water quality and discharge standards. Each bill would effectively block development of the Pebble prospect and any other mining development on millions of acres of state land in Southwest Alaska.
- A Homer resident introduced a measure to the state Board of Fish in December 2006 seeking creation of a fish refuge in the drainages near the Pebble deposit.
“What these and other efforts have in common is a goal of subverting the full, fair, public process established in our Constitution and in state law to allow lawful development of our natural resources in a responsible manner,” Irwin said. “These efforts to short-circuit the permitting process carry a significant risk by depriving communities of the opportunity to diversify their economies, generate local revenue, and provide high-wage jobs in remote areas.”
The risks are especially significant for private landholders, including Native regional and village corporations, many of which look to development of resources on their lands for shareholder jobs, joint-venture opportunities, and revenue, he said.
Alaska has a world-class system in place for natural resource use permitting and development, which involves thorough review of proposals to develop the state’s rich natural resources, and has demonstrated to the world that development can and is being accomplished with highest concern for the environment.
The state’s Large Project Team works with large project applicants and operators, federal resource managers, local governments and the Alaska public to ensure projects are designed, operated and reclaimed consistent with the public interest. The state’s laws balance potential economic and social benefits of developing non-renewable mineral resources with the potential risks to the region’s renewable resources.
“The state must be able to assure the international industries and financial markets that our processes work, that they accommodate Alaskans’ concerns, and that the system cannot be ignored because some individuals do not like a potential outcome of the process,” Irwin said.
The commissioner expressed particular appreciation for environmental groups that have worked successfully with DNR and within the established permitting system. “We understand that environmental groups have real concerns about issues related to development that are shared by many Alaskans, and appreciate their involvement and input into how to improve the permitting process,” he said.
DNR will increase outreach efforts on Alaska’s resource development permitting process. A series of workshops on resource permitting and regulation will be held around the state this year. The workshops will be designed to educate participants on Alaska’s environmental laws and regulations and the permitting process.