Pebble Mine: Going for Broke

Northern Dynasty Minerals (aka Pebble Partnership) ignores plea for help from coronavirus-stressed Bristol Bay communities, choosing instead to spend millions on top-dollar DC lobbyists urging rushed, flawed permit decision.

When Northern Dynasty Minerals—the last remaining partner in the Pebble Limited Partnership (“Pebble”)—talks about the Pebble Mine’s potential benefit to the economy, think “DC lobbyists.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations and lobbying in politics—and as reported in early April by Mining Technology (discussed in a post on this blog last week)—the Pebble Limited Partnership has spent a total of more than $11 million on DC lobbyists since 2007, including $1.6 million in 2019 aloneleading the entire mining sector for that year.

It’s a long list just for 2019 that includes some of the top lobbying firms inside the beltway, high-priced hired guns for one of the most widely-condemned development projects anywhere. Since they’re being well paid, it doesn’t seem to matter to these lobbyists if it’s a reckless project (1) that threatens the greatest wild sockeye salmon fishery on Earth, (2) that the people of Bristol Bay, by overwhelming numbers for over a decade, have opposed, (3) that four major global mining companies have abandoned, (4) that the World Conservation Congress has condemned by virtually unanimous vote, (5) that Tiffany’s and scores of other jewelry companies have blacklisted, (6) that EPA Administrators from the Presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush have called “the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place” – and more

As recorded by the Center for Responsive Politics, this lobbyist “Hall of Shame” includes:

  • Akin Gump (Joel Jankowski, Charles W. Johnson IV, Hans C. Rickhoff, Lamar Smith, Henry Terhine, Ryan Thompson, Chris Treanor, James R. Tucker, Jr., Geoff Verhoff), 
  • Ballard Partners (Brian D. Ballard, Sylvester Lukis, Susan Wiles),
  • Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney (Edward Hild),
  • Gavel Resources (Richard Pombo),
  • Pebble Limited Partnership (Peter Robertson),
  • Squire Patton Boggs (Pablo Carillo, Peter Gould, Austin Harrison, Jack Kingston, Dave LesStrang, Edward Newberry, David Schnittger, Bill Shuster, Lem Smith), and
  • Windward Strategies (Lem Smith).

That a company with so little money in the bank would decide to spend so much of it on DC lobbyists in so short a time reflects Pebble’s desperate sense that, in 2020, it’s “now or never.” 

Why has 2020 become the make-or-break year for this project? Two big reasons:

First, abandoned by its former partners, unable since 2011 to sell its own interest, and left holding 100 percent of the international pariah that is the Pebble Mine, this small unknown company needs a financial partner to survive. It has a bank account that has shrunk to almost nothing, despite repeated stock dilutions, recent financing deals, and even a $3.5 million loan from, among others, its own CEO and a member of its board. On the brink of extinction in 2016 until the election of Donald Trump, the possibility of an end to Trump’s tenure in 2020 is a powerful motivator for Northern Dynasty’s accelerated timeline in defiance even of a global pandemic. 

Second, Pebble’s CEO Tom Collier stands to pocket a $12.5 million bonus if the permitting timeline sticks. That’s a powerful personal financial incentive. Period. 

Neither rationale can be reconciled with the needs of the people who live in the region. It’s well known that the Pebble project has been intensely opposed for over a decade by Alaskans—native tribes, village associations, commercial fishermen, recreational outfitters, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and a wide diversity of stakeholders in Alaska, in the lower 48 states, and around the globe. According to an opinion piece this week by Verner Wilson III, a member of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham and a lifelong fisherman who was born and raised in Bristol Bay:

Before this pandemic, we were worried about the environmental impacts that the proposed mine brings to our renewable and sustainable resource. Now we are worried how coronavirus can devastate our communities and industry that we heavily rely on as thousands of outside workers are trying to come to our villages. Our communities and tribes are scrambling with plans to prevent death and disaster in our families. . . . Bristol Bay is an international resource, and we have seafood workers coming from around the world each summer. As such, we are naturally upset that spread of this global virus could have profound impacts in our communities, especially for our much-respected elders that are especially at risk.

Last week, faced with the imminent arrival of 15,000 people for the commercial wild salmon fishing season to a region with no capacity to accommodate the pandemic that they will bring with them, the region’s largest town—the city of Dillinghamand the Curyung Tribe made the extraordinary request that the Governor of Alaska cancel the 2020 commercial fishing season. They made this request in the shadow of devastation and death experienced by the region a century ago as a result of the Spanish flu, which affected every family and created a generation of orphans that are the great-grandparents of the generation threatened today by COVID-19.

Both Pebble and the federal permitting agency the Army Corps of Engineers have ignored the requests of those communities to pause the Pebble Mine permitting process to focus, as they must, on protecting themselves and their communities from the highly communicable pandemic that has transformed our world in just a few short months.

Pebble and its high-paid representatives have repeatedly claimed that they care about and listen to the people and concerns of Bristol Bay, but these recent developments tell a very different story. Pebble has ignored their opposition to the Pebble Mine, ignored their requests for a pause in the permitting schedule, and ignored the risks that the deadly coronavirus poses to their health and safety

It’s clear where Northern Dynasty’s priorities lie. It’s clear what is motivating its army of lobbyists. And it’s clear where financial self-interest lies for Pebble CEO Tom Collier, with the $12.5 million bonus he expects to pocket if Pebble gets permitted this year.

For Pebble 2020 may indeed be “now or never.” But for the people of the region who would have to live with the consequences of Pebble’s mining disaster-in-the-making, the consequences will last forever.

Amakdedori Beach, looking toward MacNeil Refuge and Katmai National Park

Joel Reynolds

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

Western Director, Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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