Pebble Mine: “Tapes? What Tapes??”

Ignoring shocking undercover videotapes released last week, CEO of Canadian owner of proposed Bristol Bay copper mine asserts “rule of law” dictates approval of federal permit.

Bristol Bay Watershed

© Robert Glenn Ketchum, 2020

It’s easy to understand why the small Canadian company behind the embattled Pebble Mine—Northern Dynasty Minerals—would want to forget the explosive undercover videotapes released last week. Most troublesome, the “Pebble Tapes” show Pebble’s CEOs demeaning government officials, bragging about their powers of political manipulation, and confirming their plan, previously denied, to build a 200-year mine at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery.

The videotapes, created by the DC-based Environmental Investigations Agency, have generated a firestorm of anger and opposition to the project. Within days, they cost the Pebble Partnership its CEO Tom Collier, who resigned in disgrace last Wednesday.

On Friday, Northern Dynasty’s CEO Ronald Thiessen published a lengthy article in North of 60 Mining News defending his disintegrating mining scheme. Notably, Thiessen didn’t bother to mention the videotapes, or Tom Collier, or Thiessen’s own fully engaged and fully culpable participation in the very same videotaped conversations that compelled Collier’s departure. 

In the vain hope of quelling the growing condemnation the tapes have generated against him, his embattled company, and his destructive mining scheme, Thiessen ignores all of this, as if living in an alternative universe where pretending he didn’t get caught will overcome the undeniability of the video proof that he did.

He focuses instead on the alleged “merits” of the 20-year project Northern Dynasty has proposed for permitting by the Army Corps of Engineers—even though, as shown in the videotapes, that 20-year project is just a Trojan horse foran illegal “segmentation” ofthe 200-year mine that Thiessen repeatedly told investigators (posing as investors) was the company’s actual plan.

He asserts that science and the United States’ “iron-clad, centuries-long commitment to the rule of law” dictates approval of his company’s permit application—even though, as shown in the videotapes, the company (1) has heavily relied not on science or law but on political manipulation and (2) has failed to disclose or analyze the reality and elevated environmental and social risks of its true mine plan.

And he blames anti-mining environmentalists, their “fellow travelers in the Obama Administration,” and the ”media echo chamber” for making his project an international pariah—even though, as a matter of public record, the opposition has been spearheaded for decades by Alaskans, the commercial fishing industry, and the Tribal communities of Bristol Bay.

Not only does he ignore the videotapes, Thiessen’s self-serving case for the Pebble Mine is riddled with misstatements. Consider, for example the following:

  • Thiessen: Northern Dynasty Minerals has “spent more than a decade and close to $1 billion” on the Pebble project.

Fact: Anglo American paid for $541 million of those costs—and then abandoned the project.

  • Thiessen: Pebble will “ensure America is self-sufficient when it comes to [copper] that’s absolutely essential to achieving a low carbon future, without relying on China.”

Fact: Thiessen and Collier were videotaped meeting with EIA investigators who reportedly posed as Chinese investors from a Hong Kong investment firm with links to a company owned by the Chinese government.

  • Thiessen: “As an asset of the State of Alaska, Pebble would enjoy public and political support.”

Fact: The Pebble project has long been actively opposed by 80 percent of the people who live in the Bristol Bay region and, according to recent polling, 62% of Alaskans. Both Alaska Senators now oppose the Pebble Mine.

  • Thiessen: “[T]here is still opposition to Pebble from environmentalists activists and some Alaskans . . . .”

Fact: The opposition to the Pebble Mine has been led for decades by the people of Alaska and, most particularly, by the overwhelming opposition in the Bristol Bay region. To characterize this as “some Alaskans” ignores years of polling showing strong regional and state-wide opposition.

  • Thiessen: “The US environmental movement [must come] to grips with the importance of mining in general, and the domestic production of copper in particular.”

Fact: The fight against Pebble isn’t about the need for mining or for copper. We need both. But the Pebble Mine is a bad project—the wrong mine in the wrong place—and for that reason it has been abandoned over the past decade alone by four of the world’s largest mining companies: Mitsubishi Corporation in 2011, Anglo American in 2013, Rio Tinto in 2014, and First Quantum Minerals in 2018. 

In a “Mining Stock Daily” podcast on August 24, 2020, host Trevor Hall and two prominent mining geologists and industry veterans Brent Cook (Industry Insights) and Mickey Fulp (The Mercenary Geologist and co-host of Kitco’s “Metals, Money and Markets Weekly”) expressed the clear industry consensus that the Pebble Mine should not be built:

Trevor Hall: I’ve never seen a project such as Pebble where the industry itself is almost in full agreement that this is a project that shouldn’t go any further.

Brent Cook: There are some projects that should not be developed either for economic or environmental reasons, and I would throw Pebble into that.

Mickey Fulp: The NPV is underwater to the CapEx. . . . I think anybody that has an economic background that looks at the deposit and the economics of the deposit, it’s not going to be built. Not going to be built in my lifetime

  • Thiessen: “The project design we've proposed [after years of getting to know the people of the region, their hopes, fears, and expectations], and that will soon be permitted by federal regulators, is better by far because of the time we took and the money we spent to do things right.”

Fact: The tapes reveal that Northern Dynasty’s actual plan – and the one that the company has for years been pitching to potential investors—is not for 20 years and one-tenth of the ore body, as proposed for permitting by the Army Corps. The videotapes confirm, through Thiessen’s own words, that the company’s actual plan is a massive 200-year, 10 billion ton minevirtually the same destructive mining scheme that Northern Dynasty has been proposing for over a decade, with exponentially greater (yet unreviewed) environmental risk than the project proposed for permitting.

  • Thiessen: “NRDC convinced its fellow travelers in the Obama administration to try to veto Pebble before we'd even applied for a permit.”

Fact: The petition to EPA for a veto under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act was filed by six Bristol Bay Tribes. NRDC and many other stakeholders from Alaska and the lower 48 states supported that petition.

  • Thiessen: “We [want] Pebble to stand economically, for sure, but also socially and environmentally.”

Fact: Despite requests from numerous stakeholders, Northern Dynasty has refused to prepare or disclose an economic feasibility analysis. Former Rio Tinto mining expert Richard Borden has concluded that, as proposed, the project would lose $3 billion

An international pariah, the Pebble Mine has been condemned by former EPA Administrators for Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush as “the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place,” rejected by the World Conservation Congress, abandoned by leading global mining companies and leading investment firms like BlackRock and Morgan Stanley, and opposed by Tiffany & Co. because “there are some places on Earth that shouldn’t be mined.”

  • Thiessen: “No one has mounted a serious challenge to the findings of the [Final Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) for the Pebble Mine].”

Fact: The environmental review process and the EIS have been widely criticized for numerous data gaps, incorrect assumptions, and fatally flawed analysis. Notably, the tapes now establish beyond dispute that the project reviewed in the EIS and being considered in the permit process is one-tenth the size and duration of the project actually planned by Northern Dynasty—the potential impacts of which have not been reviewed.

The reality is that, try as he might, Ron Thiessen cannot reclaim whatever credibility he and his company once may have had with government officials, government agencies, investors, or the public at large. While the resignation of Tom Collier was clearly warranted, it does nothing to address the heart of the problem. Collier was the most prominent face of the problem, but the problem is, and has always been, Northern Dynasty and its reckless, destructive project.

No matter what Thiessen may now argue, Northern Dynasty has not earned and cannot legally be granted a federal permit to build the Pebble Mine. If, as he claims, a decision from the Army Corps is imminent, that decision can only be a denial.

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

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

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