The Canary in the Pebble Mine

The Upper Talarik River headwaters are located near the proposed site of the Pebble Mine in the Iliamna Lake area of ​​the Alaska Peninsula.


Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Politicians urge the US to become more self-sufficient in key metals and minerals, but then block domestic mining at every opportunity. The Pebble Mine project in Alaska is the latest on the list of victims.

The Pebble site has an estimated $300 billion to $500 billion in mineral resources and could be one of the world’s largest suppliers of copper and gold. Electric cars, wind and solar energy require enormous amounts of copper. Investors have invested nearly $1 billion in exploration, engineering and studies to meet regulatory requirements.

But last week, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency enacted a provision under the Clean Water Act that bans the disposal of mining waste within 308 square miles of the Pebble site, regardless of whether it poses an environmental risk. This could be a fatal blow to the mine.

The political attack on the project began when the Obama EPA preemptively vetoed it before the government even conducted an environmental assessment. Trump EPA later had the US Army Corps of Engineers conduct an environmental analysis, and in July 2020 the Corps determined that the mine would have “no measurable impact” on local fish populations. But then Donald Trump Jr. opposed the mine, and a few weeks after the November election, the Corps refused Pebbles’ permit.

The Pebble developers challenged the Corps’ seemingly arbitrary decision and prevailed. But Republican senators from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, also oppose the Pebble Mine, even if they oppose the EPA veto for legal reasons, so this could be the end of the project.

Resource development can be done while protecting the environment. Yet the same climate activists who are working to stop fossil fuel development are also trying to block the mining of minerals essential for renewable energy.

For example, a recent Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report calls for a moratorium on most lithium brine extraction. Lithium is essential for the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles. The NRDC instead wants “longer-term solutions that reduce the need for new batteries,” such as “public policy tools to enable better access and use of public transport, cycling and walking.” The Greens want to ban gas-powered cars and block mineral mining for electric cars.

Politicians will claim that Pebble’s surrounding area is unique in its ecological value, but there’s always another excuse to ban the next mine. In January, the Interior Department revoked long-standing federal leases for mining at Minnesota’s Duluth Complex, which accounts for 95% of America’s nickel, 88% of its cobalt and more than a third of its copper.

Minerals and metals continue to be mined, but in countries with far less environmental protection, such as Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and China. The next time a politician bemoans America’s supply chain vulnerabilities, ask what specific mining project they support.

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Appeared in the print edition of May 31, 2022. The Canary in the Pebble Mine

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