The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined last month that it would need to extend the permitting timeline for the Pebble project by 90 days. A Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is due in late June/early July, with a Record of Decision following in Fall 2020.
In November and December 2019 the Corps held six days of technical meetings with cooperating agencies and AECOM, its third-party contractor. During those discussions, the Corps identified additional refinements that would be needed.
Sheila Newman, deputy chief of the Regulatory Division for the Alaska District, explained that the Corps had received around 116,000 public comments on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). It developed 750 statements of concern out of those comments and drafted responses to those concerns. The Corps shared its draft responses with cooperating agencies during the technical meetings. “As we were going through that, we identified some areas that we would like to take another look at and refine the analyses before we put out a final document,” said Newman.
Calculating how much time the Corps, AECOM and cooperating agencies would need to finalize the FEIS factored into the decision to extend the timeframe.
Although Newman informed reporters about this decision in both December 2019 and January 2020 media advisories, the Corps hasn’t updated its timeline online. Newman said that they weren’t ready to release a specific date, and that “Estimated Early 2020” for release of the FEIS and “Estimated Mid 2020” for the Record of Decision are still accurate.
The impact of another 90 days
The Corps’ 90 day extension could have an impact on the Pebble project in a few ways:
Northern Dynasty Minerals (NDM), sole owner of Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), still has no partner for the project. Finding one or more partners has been its priority for the last few years, as an influx of cash is needed to continue through the federal and state permitting processes. NDM has been forced to raise money in creative ways to stay afloat (including a December public offering of nearly 42 million common shares at just US$0.37 that shocked and angered its shareholders).
NDM/PLP bears the bulk of the cost for permitting. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directs AECOM, the third-party contractor leading the charge to develop the EIS. However, PLP pays the bills. Newman says she doesn’t know what that cost is.
An additional 90 days in this process could stretch NDM even thinner. As reported by CNN, in June 2019, PLP’s Shalon Harrington sent talking points to Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy’s aide Brett Huber that included items PLP wanted Governor Dunleavy to address with President Trump. The points centered on EPA’s decision whether or not to rescind the process of proposing protections in Bristol Bay (known as the Clean Water Act 404(c) process). PLP believed that getting rid of the spectre of EPA protections was critical to attracting a partner. One of the first talking points Harrington provided for Governor Dunleavy to repeat to President Trump related to NDM’s financial straits. “Before the proposed veto Pebble stock was at $20 a share – today it is at 50 cents. They tell me they will die if they can’t do a deal with an investor in the next few weeks. They tell me they need the veto lifted in order to do the deal.”
In a surprise announcement shortly after Dunleavy met with Trump, the EPA did rescind the proposed protections. While unlikely, there’s still a possibility it could start this 404(c) process again later. Under CWA guidelines, it can initiate the process before, during or after permitting.
EPA is also considering whether to make a determination that the Pebble proposal would have significant adverse effects to aquatic resources of national importance. (In 175 pages of comments on the Corps’ DEIS, EPA said that the document “likely underestimates” potential impacts.) If EPA does determine this, it would notify the Corps with a “B Letter,” as outlined in 404(q) guidelines. The Corps has granted EPA an extension to this process, giving the agency until February 28 to send the letter.
Initially, this timeframe would have coincided with the Corps’ projected release of the Final EIS (early 2020). Now that the process is extended, the EPA may need additional time to review the proposal and make the determination. An EPA
The 90-day extension pushes the Record of Decision to Fall 2020 and closer to the general election. Under the Obama administration, the EPA chose to propose protections around the Pebble deposit in Bristol Bay. Trump’s administration undid those actions and is seeking changes to NEPA permitting and EPA’s 404(c) authority that could remove barriers to expansion of the Pebble project. A change in administration could affect those efforts.