Pebble Mine: High-Priced Lobbyists v. the People of Alaska

Cash-strapped Pebble Partnership tops the list of mining sector spending for DC lobbyists in 2019, desperate to get Pebble Mine permit in 2020 over unrelenting, overwhelming opposition in Alaska.

The beleaguered financial history of Northern Dynasty Minerals—the sole owner of the widely condemned Pebble Mine that threatens the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery—is no secret. The company has been on the financial edge since the departure of Mitsubishi Corporation in 2011, Anglo American in 2013, and Rio Tinto in 2014. First Quantum Minerals walked away in 2018, and Wheaton Precious Metals took a close look in 2019 before backing away.

According to its December 31, 2019 consolidated financial statements, Northern Dynasty had only about $10 million in cash or cash equivalents available for operations, after already having (1) completed a $15.5 million financing that same month and (2) used $2.3 million of a $3.5 million loan from, among others, its own CEO and a member of its board.

For years, Northern Dynasty has been ceaselessly beating the bushes—without success—for new money, a new partner, or a buy-out. Because the improbable ascendency of Donald Trump is likely the only thing standing between Northern Dynasty and financial implosion, the company’s overriding priority in the absence of a new partner has been to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers (“ACOE”) before Trump is gone, hoping that this will do the financial trick.

Mining Technology -- April 1, 2020

So, it’s no mystery why Northern Dynasty (aka The Pebble Partnership) went for broke in 2019, hiring an army of high-priced Washington, D.C. lobbyists to sell the Pebble Mine. Last year and this, the company has put all its chips on the table in the hope that they can get a permit, get a new partner, andfinallyget out.

Still, it was a shock last week to read in “Mining Technology” that lobbying on behalf of the Pebble Partnership—of which Northern Dynasty is the sole remaining partner—“forms the most significant lobbying activity in Washington, D.C. for the mining sector.” 

What?? More than giants like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Anglo American, Freeport-McMoRan, or any of the mining industry’s leaders. 

Northern Dynasty—the small, underfunded Canadian mining exploration company with not a single mining project in operation or under construction and no assets other than the Pebble Mine—is the biggest spender on DC lobbyists in the entire mining sector:

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations and lobbying in politics, lobbying on behalf of the Pebble Limited Partnership forms the most significant lobbyist activity in Washington, DC for the mining sector. Just under $1.6m was spent on lobbying for the Pebble mine in 2019, adding to a total of more than $11m spent since 2007. (Emphasis added.)

Mining Technology goes on to report the project’s “unpopular[ity] among Alaskans” and the active opposition of groups like NRDC, concluding that Pebble’s intense focus on DC lobbyists reflects the company’s sense that “favorable conditions” exist under the Trump Administration:

The mine is unpopular among Alaskans, and groups including the Natural Resource Defense Council oppose its construction. An increase in year-on-year spending to sway DC officials into supporting the mine since 2016 signifies that Pebble’s proponents sense favorable conditions in pushing the project through under the Trump administration.

Of course, whether accurate or not, this “sense” is an unreliable basis for a major investment in a project as controversial and long-opposed as the Pebble Mine. Obviously, just as a short-term change in the political winds can blow one way, they can just as quickly change direction, long before a massive and widely condemned extraction project like this one can get off the ground. The financial risk remains for as long as the opposition remains, and in this case the opposition is broad-based, intense, and relentless.

Be that as it may, we don’t have to wonder what message this expensive army of lobbyists is delivering in the halls of DC. Consistent with Pebble’s absurd but well-worn talking points, it likely includes that Pebble’s massive open pit gouged into the headwaters of Bristol Bay will actually enhance the world class fishery, that the preposterous Pebble Mine scheme has a future despite intense and immovable opposition in Alaska, and that this country’s clean energy future depends on permitting the Pebble Mine.

Presumably, the heart of the matterthe unspoken subtextis that green-lighting the Pebble Mine now is essential to the survival of the company that is paying the high-priced lobbyists’ bills.

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.

But what remains crystal clear—and what should matter more to any potential partner or investor—is that the people of Bristol Bay, supported by NRDC and countless other stakeholders in Alaska and around the world, will never abandon their defense of Bristol Bay and its salmon. And they will never relent in their opposition to any project that threatens those resources. 

Stop the Pebble Mine. Take action now.

Nushagak River, Bristol Bay Watershed

Robert Glenn Ketchum

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

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

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