Alaska Department of Natural Resources: Keep Pebble moving forward

The State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which will decide on certain state permits for the Pebble project, has written the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging it to keep moving ahead with the federal permitting process. Several Bristol Bay groups have asked the Corps to suspend the process during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This type of letter from the State of Alaska isn’t common, but not unusual either, noted David Hobbie, Chief of the Corps’ Regulatory Division, in an April media advisory. Currently the Corps and its third party contractor AECOM are finalizing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a document that will help inform the agency’s decision whether to grant a critical Clean Water Act 404 permit for the 20-year mine plan Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) has set out. The Corps has been careful to note that it has not made a decision on whether the project will receive a permit.

DNR has not received a state permit application with details about Pebble’s engineering plans yet. This part of the process is important, as the Corps’ oversight is limited to dredge and fill material in waters of the U.S. There are many areas that fall under State of Alaska review. For example, the Corps doesn’t have any oversight over construction, which is why it has not conducted an analysis of a full tailings dam breach as part of its review process.

The wording in DNR Commissioner Corri Feige’s letter seemed to presume that the Pebble project will receive permits, and that it will provide economic benefits that will help communities suffering from the impacts of COVID-19.

“The proposed Pebble Mine Project is important to Alaskans, as it will provide jobs, infrastructure, and revenues critical for local, regional, and statewide economies that are being significantly impacted by COVID-19. Keeping the Pebble Mine FEIS, Record of Decision, and associated required consultations, on their defined timelines will enhance the applicant’s ability to initiate the state permitting process sooner….. When we make it through this pandemic, we will need to be prepared to reenergize our economy, job force, and revenue streams. Keeping the Pebble Mine Project on time will be a huge step in that direction, benefitting our statewide economy.” – State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige

For investors and PLP, the letter is an encouraging sign that the State of Alaska is solidly behind the project. Stock chat boards and PLP’s Twitter feed are both quoting it. For those against the project, Feige’s letter is seen as an example of a longer state campaign to promote the Pebble project to potential investors, to federal agencies, and even directly to President Trump.

Feige told Pebble Watch in a statement that she’s sent similar communications to federal agencies on a number of projects that could provide new economic activity to the state. If a project has potential to benefit Alaskans, said Feige, she doesn’t want them to be held up at the federal level. However, she clarified that, “The State process is lengthy and time consuming in and of itself, and no determinations, either for or against a project, can be made until all facets of the project are put through the State’s rigorous review and analysis. For large, complex projects, that process in extremely involved, includes numerous public comment periods, and takes considerable time.”

State permitting

While Feige describes a lengthy and rigorous state process, developers look to the federal process as their “go-ahead.” In a January interview, Ron Thiessen, CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals, which owns PLP, downplayed the state process, telling investors that the federal 404 permit is “the penultimate permit. This is your Right to Mine…It’s the big one. The rest of the permits are construction permits that are in the purview of the State of Alaska.”

A decision on the federal 404 permit is not a prerequisite to submitting state permit applications. Often the two processes go hand-in-hand, rather than chronologically. PLP could initiate the state process at any time, but getting the 404 permit first is expected to help it attract partners and much-needed financing.

Entering the state permitting process after the federal process could actually hamper the project. If the state were to ask PLP to change its plans in a substantive way – to better meet Alaska’s water quality standards, for example – it would have to go back through the federal NEPA process again.

Offsetting COVID impacts

In the best case scenario, if all permitting goes smoothly and there are no delays, local and state economies would not benefit soon enough from this project to alleviate COVID-19 impacts. Northern Dynasty Minerals forecasts construction in spring 2023, with the mine operational sometime in late 2026. PLP has not released economic studies on its 20-year mine plan, but estimates 750-1000 direct jobs for Alaskans over the entire life of the project, including construction, operating, closure and reclamation.

COVID Letters

The DNR letter is listed in a new “COVID Letters” section of the Corps’ Pebble Project website. Also included are those letters from environmental groups and local tribes, which say that all of the Corps’ efforts right now should be directed to pandemic response. A delay in permitting will not harm the Pebble project, they argue. In Bristol Bay, residents and tribes are dealing with response to COVID risks, especially with fishing season ramping up. More than two dozen lodges signed a letter urging the Corps to:

“be responsive to this global pandemic, be sensitive to the challenges that our remote villages and businesses face, and prioritize the health and welfare of the public by staying the Corps’ review of the proposed mine until after this health crisis is over. Several cooperating agencies and consulting entities whose input is crucial to filling the numerous gaps identified during the draft EIS are working overtime to make sure they are prepared to meet the current and future health and safety needs of their tribes and villages, and as a result have been unable to provide the feedback and input necessary for a fully informed final EIS. They should not be asked to divert their limited resources away from COVID-19 response to address already taxing EIS comment deadlines.”

Hobbie said that the Corps does not see any need to suspend or delay its permitting activities at this point, as it is able to work remotely to finalize the EIS. The Corps anticipates having its final version ready by mid-June to July, with a Record of Decision on the permit to follow no sooner than 30 days after. Although they are hoping to stick to that plan, Hobbie allowed that unknowns related to COVID-19 could impact it (illness among key team members or a call-up to assist other Corps Divisions if necessary).

Full Feige Statement

“My April 15 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is just one of several communications I’ve initiated with federal agencies on projects in Alaska, including the Willow oil development on the North Slope, Roadless Rulemaking in the Tongass, and the Pebble project. My message in all of them was consistent: Alaska is facing significant economic impacts from the combined effect of low oil prices, curtailment of the tourist season, and the general economic slowdown from COVID-19 social distancing and “hunkering down.” That’s why it’s so important that we keep making progress on projects that hold out the possibility of new economic activity in the state. We at the Department of Natural Resources are, and have been throughout the COVID-19 response, hard at work doing our job to manage our resources to benefit the people, and I encouraged our sister resource agencies in the federal government to resist the pressure to use the pandemic as an excuse to slow or stop progress on these projects.

“My letter regarding the Pebble project spoke to the importance of maintaining the NEPA timeline. The NEPA timeline has an impact on when a project can begin to enter the State’s permitting process. The State process is lengthy and time consuming in and of itself, and no determinations, either for or against a project, can be made until all facets of the project are put through the State’s rigorous review and analysis. For large, complex projects, that process in extremely involved, includes numerous public comment periods, and takes considerable time.

“Part of DNR’s complex mission is to ensure that resource projects that have potential to benefit Alaskans – be they mines, oil wells, ski resorts or others — don’t languish in federal processes, but are moved forward in a timely manner so the State’s permitting processes can determine if they are, in fact, in the State’s interest or not.”

Corri A. Feige, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Natural Resources