The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blocked the development of the proposed Pebble mine–the most significant undeveloped copper and gold resource in the world–because of stated concerns about its environmental impact on Alaska’s aquatic ecosystem. The site is located in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a final determination under the Clean Water Act that bans the disposal of mine waste in part of the bay’s watershed. Determinations using the 1972 Clean Water Act are rare with only three issued in the past 30 years. The Pebble Limited Partnership is likely to appeal the determination. The area contains deposits of precious-metal ores thought to be worth several hundred billion dollars. As proposed, the project called for a mining rate of up to 73 million tons a year. Copper is an essential component in the “electrification of everything” agenda being pushed as an alternative to the consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas by self-described environmental groups who oppose domestic energy production.
According to EPA, disposal of material from the construction and operation of the mine would destroy 100 miles of streams and more than 2,100 acres of wetlands. However, an earlier Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), prepared during the Trump administration, found that these losses would be inconsequential to fish populations. But, according to the Biden administration, that EIS did not represent an accurate and thorough assessment of likely impacts.
This is the second mine banned by the Biden administration in two weeks. Last week, the administration moved to establish a 20-year moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, blocking a proposal for the Twin Metals mine–a copper and nickel mine.
Pebble Mine Background
The Pebble mine was first proposed in the early 2000s and has had an up-and-down existence. In the late 2000s, it gained support from Alaska’s governor at the time, Sarah Palin. In 2014, the Obama administration moved to block the mine, citing the Clean Water Act and risks to the salmon fishery. The Pebble partnership, however, has maintained that the project can coexist with salmon because the deposit is at the upper reaches of three “very small tributaries” and any impacts on the fishery “in the unlikely event of an incident” would be “minimal.”
The Trump administration reversed the Obama-era ruling. However, late in the Trump administration, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the project a critical permit. The Pebble Limited Partnership appealed the corps’ decision, which is still unresolved. According to EPA, even if the company were to succeed in the appeal, the Corps could not approve the project given the EPA determination, unless it was somehow changed and the new proposal “does not have the similar adverse effects of this proposal.”
The Pebble proposal calls for an open-pit mine on a square mile of land, eventually dug to a depth of about 1,500 feet. Millions of tons of rock ore would be removed annually and processed to extract copper and gold as well as molybdenum, which is used to strengthen steel in alloys. It also contains enough of the rare strategic mineral rhenium to supply U.S. needs for decades. The project also includes the construction of a power plant and pipeline for natural gas to fuel it, as well as an access road and a port. The mine site is accessible only by helicopter and snowmobile in winter.
In 2020, Pebble executives were recorded saying they expected the project to become much bigger, and operate for much longer than originally outlined. The executives, who were recorded by members of an environmental advocacy group posing as potential investors, said the mine could operate for 160 years or more beyond the proposed 20 years. And it could quickly double its output after the initial two decades. If correct, it could provide stable and secure mineral sourcing to the United States for over a century.
The EPA determination is the latest blow to the project. In December, the Conservation Fund, an environmental preservation organization, purchased conservation easements for 44,000 acres of land owned by a Native village corporation near Iliamna Lake, about 20 miles south of the proposed mine site and the area covered by the EPA ruling. The easements effectively block development and would make the construction of an access road more difficult.
Some politicians fear that EPA’s veto of the Pebble mine is a dangerous precedent that could affect future development in Alaska because it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams. According to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who opposes the mine, “This determination must not serve as a precedent to target any other project in our state and must be the only time EPA ever uses its veto authority under the Clean Water Act in Alaska.” Given the Biden Administration’s growing record of opposition to domestic mineral projects, it is unlikely to honor her protestations.
Despite President Biden’s push to reach green energy goals and make the U.S. less dependent on foreign nations for critical minerals needed for wind and solar technologies and electric vehicles, his administration is working to block the development of mines that could lead to a domestic critical mineral mining industry. This dichotomy of words vs. actions of the Biden administration is not beneficial to the nation and its energy and national security. On the one hand, the Biden administration wants to “kill” fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, but on the other hand, it is doing all it can to remove new mines that would provide the critical minerals for a successful domestic industry. This means the United States will be dependent on autocratic countries, particularly China, for the minerals and technologies needed. Given that China is already in control of global critical mineral supply chains, the United States is moving to become four times more dependent on China than it ever was on the Middle East for oil.