The Governor has tasked me to ensure wise stewardship of our natural resources for the maximum benefit of Alaskans. Our constitution mandates utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources for the maximum benefit of the people. And to enable us to do this responsibly, we have developed a public process that involves planning to determine the best uses of our lands, and the ability to conduct highly technical reviews of resource development proposals so that we can clearly understand the potential risks and rewards from the proposed development. This process also requires many written decisions, both federal and state, that receive extensive public review. In this way, we are able to determine if the proposed project is in the best interest of all Alaskans.
The proposed Pebble Project is on everybody’s mind right now. Before I go any further, let me make it perfectly clear that neither the Governor nor I will let this project proceed if it will put Bristol Bay fisheries at risk. We must develop our resources, and we must protect Alaska.
The hype on all fronts has been premature. Except for exploration plans and very preliminary water rights applications, we have no idea what a proposed Pebble Project will look like. Now there is a new partner involved in the evaluation, design and development of a proposed project. Anglo American plc has become a 50% owner in Pebble, and they come with large company expertise in mineral development in all parts of the world. We have already counseled them to slow down, listen to Alaskans, to not count on Pebble as a foregone conclusion, and to do their work right.
There is hopelessness in areas of rural Alaska. Joblessness, alcohol, drugs, and physical and sexual abuse are prevalent. Young people are leaving their communities and the state. We must address these issues now, and the one thing I know is that jobs have a positive effect. Resource development can provide significant opportunities in these areas. Look at the Donlin Creek Project and the giant strides they have made.
I must clear up some misconceptions about Alaska’s permitting process. First, some say that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is not the right agency to conduct an objective review. It is important to understand that DNR does not have the final say in whether a mine should be permitted. There are many permits required for a large mine project, from state agencies, including DNR and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers. Denial by any one of these agencies could stop the project. DNR has no authority over the decisions of other agencies.
The second misconception is that we never say “no” to a mine project. In fact, we say “no” many times during the permitting process. Each review for the many required permits requires many yes/no decisions for different components of a project. We may say “no” to a proposed design for a tailings dam because it is not robust enough or for other reasons, and the applicant will typically rework the design to strengthen it. We will not approve a proposal until the design is fully evaluated and acceptable to the agencies and the public has had its opportunity to comment. A project will evolve considerably from original proposal through final approval as changes are made to meet necessary requirements or to address evaluation and public concerns. A final approved project never looks the same as the project that was originally applied for.
A third misconception is that somehow we have “streamlined” the process to make it easier for an applicant to get approval by cutting corners and relaxing environmental standards. The truth is that the standards are still being adhered to and if anything, projects are more critically scrutinized. All we have done is attempted to synchronize all the many permitting processes so that the public as well as the agencies know the requirements and timeline. The agencies can then focus use of their resources, and the public has a better understanding of when and where in the process it has opportunities for participation.
When I hear someone say that our permitting process is broken, I am usually given the same reasons: the move of the Habitat Division and the Coastal Zone Program to DNR, and DEC’s change in the mixing zone regulations. While we are currently evaluating each of these to see what, if any, changes need to be made, I am at a loss to provide a specific example of where the environment has been damaged as a result of any of these changes. However, we continue to be faced with this perception. As a result, DNR with other state and federal agencies are holding meetings around the state to show Alaskans how the process works.
By eliminating the opportunity to participate in a fair process for review and evaluation of a proposed mining project, the collateral damage can extend on to other resource development. Oil, gas, fisheries and timber are all put at risk if we do not have a fair process. And don’t forget the impacts will be to not only state resources, but to Native corporation lands, university and borough lands and their resources as well. This should cause concern for all Alaskans.
As the late Governor Jay Hammond stated in an opinion piece, “Am I unalterably opposed to the Pebble mine? Only if it fails to meet the four criteria required to assure minimal harm and maximum benefit. Is it environmentally sound? Can it pay its own way or will it fail to generate enough revenue to offset costs of the state involvement in furnishing and maintaining infrastructure and services, environmental assessment, monitoring and enforcement, and multitude of other hidden costs? Do the majority of Alaskans desire the project? Will it contribute something to the Permanent Fund in order to meet our constitution’s mandate that all our natural resources be managed for the maximum benefit of the people?”
I believe that Governor Hammond had a lot of wisdom and that we all would benefit by following his sage advice.
Tom Irwin is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.