‘Pebble tapes’ send project leaders into damage control mode
The Pebble Limited Partnership is trying to patch its battered image after secretly recorded videos last month caught its two top executives boasting about their influence over Alaska politicians and regulators.
The controversial Pebble mine proposal faces new challenges after Alaska’s U.S. senators, the governor and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denounced the statements as false.
But despite the blowback from the videos’ Sept. 21 release, the developer of the copper and gold prospect in Southwest Alaska continues its effort to win a key construction permit from the Corps.
“The idea that Pebble is dead, no matter whose opinion it is, is just not accurate,” said Mark Hamilton, vice president of public affairs at Pebble Limited Partnership. “(Pebble) can go forward and it is going forward as we speak.”
Amid the fallout:
• Pebble’s chief executive, Tom Collier, resigned after he and Ron Thiessen, president of Pebble parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals, were recorded talking freely on the tapes. Thiessen has not resigned, a Pebble official said Oct. 5.
• Democratic members of Congress have raised the possibility of investigations into what they say are discrepancies between the executives’ statements in the tapes and comments that Collier made before a House subcommittee.
• Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan came out solidly against the project. Sullivan’s challenger in this year’s election, Democratic-nominated independent Al Gross, is using the leaked tapes in campaign ads against Sullivan.
• Alaska’s speaker of the House has asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy not to support a mitigation plan Pebble needs to win the Corps permit.
• House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said he would donate the $500 he received from Collier to charity. The group opposing Ballot Measure 2 said it would return Collier’s $2,500 donation. It retained donations from some current Pebble employees.
Pebble opposition groups remain wary
Collier’s resignation does nothing to eliminate the questions raised in the videotaped conversations about the credibility of the permitting process, said Nelli Williams, Alaska director of Trout Unlimited.
“A full investigation by Congress is absolutely necessary — Alaskans and Americans deserve to know the truth,” she said in a prepared statement.
If built, Pebble would be located about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, near headwaters of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Pebble would like to secure a Corps permit soon, before entering a three-year permitting phase with the state.
John Shively, Pebble’s interim CEO replacing Collier, released a statement Oct. 1 trying to distance the company from the statements made on the tapes. He reminded readers that Northern Dynasty has given an unconditional apology to Alaskans, while he personally apologized to Alaskans and Pebble staff.
“The people working on the project, from our site staff to our corporate staff, have the utmost integrity — and I know all of them felt betrayed by what they saw expressed on those tapes,” Shively said. “Much of the content was boastful, embellished, insensitive and stretched credulity to its breaking point.”
In the videos, secretly organized by an environmental group, Collier and Thiessen spoke with people hired to pose as potential Pebble investors from Hong Kong.
Collier and Thiessen said in the recordings Alaska Republican U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Sullivan were just being political when they said in August that Pebble has not met the high bar for environmentally safe development and should not be permitted.
They described friendly relations with Corps officials. They said they could call up Dunleavy, and he’d reach the White House on their behalf, whenever they want.
The leaked conversations add to the uncertainty the mine faces, said Bob Loeffler, previously the director of Alaska’s Division of Mining, Land and Water under former Alaska Govs. Tony Knowles and Frank Murkowski.
“It can’t be good for a project when so many politicians are going against it,” he said.
The mine has lost its major mining partners over the years, including Anglo American in 2013. Pebble and Northern Dynasty, a small mining company from Canada, need investors to help cover enormous development costs.
Finding an investor could be even harder now, said Bruce Switzer, former director of environmental affairs for Cominco, now Teck, in the early 1990s when the mining company owned the Pebble deposit.
Teck Cominco left the project in 2005 because it’s not economically viable, despite what Pebble claims about the mine’s enormous value, Switzer asserted. Switzer is also a former mining consultant who advised Pebble opponents after he left Cominco.
The leaked conversations underscore that Pebble is a politically motivated project, rather than one that can stand on its own financial merits, Switzer said.
If Pebble is the world-class deposit the company touts, “why would you have these two promoters essentially lying” about the project’s relationships with politicians, said Switzer.
Federal lawmakers raise specter of investigations
After the tapes were leaked, Alaska’s U.S. senators have taken pains to emphasize their opposition to the project receiving a permit.
Sullivan, facing pressure from challenger Gross, came out forcefully against the mine on Twitter, saying “No Pebble Mine.” Lisa Murkowski, who described herself as “absolutely, spitting furious” in reaction to the tapes, retweeted Sullivan’s message with three heart emoji for support.
Sullivan later said in an interview with Alaska Public Media that he would not support the project even if it presented a satisfactory mitigation plan.
Hamilton, with Pebble, said officials with any project in Alaska would like to have the vocal support of the state’s U.S. senators.
But it’s the Corps that will decide whether to award a permit or not.
“Everyone who was insulted by that display (in the videos) appropriately does not hold us in the highest regard,” Hamilton said. “But these are professionals at the Corps ultimately, and the Corps will do what the regulations tell them to do.”
Other federal lawmakers are raising the specter of possible probes into Collier’s written testimony to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in 2019, when he said, “Pebble has no current plans, in this application or in any other way, for expansion.”
But while Pebble has submitted a 20-year plan to the Corps, Thiessen said in the video that the mine could potentially produce minerals for 200 years. He said expansion beyond 20 years will be unstoppable once development begins.
Collier said “we,” presumably Pebble, will at some point request a mine expansion. As he had before, he said that will require a new state and federal permitting process.
Longtime Pebble opponent U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called for a Department of Justice investigation into the comments.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, R-Oregon, chair of the House transportation committee, said Collier may have misled Congress in 2019. His investigative staff are reviewing the comments, he said in a recent statement.
Thiessen and Collier did not say in the videos that Pebble has a “defined” plan for expansion beyond the 20-year proposal, according to a statement from Northern Dynasty last month.
“What we have said consistently, and is reinforced in the ‘Pebble tapes’ released this week,” is there is no current “formal” plan for expansion, Northern Dynasty said.
Pebble still aims to win the permit — and change minds
The U.S. Army, the Corps’ parent agency, said in August that the project can’t be permitted as currently proposed.
The land-use protection plan that Pebble is pursuing, showing how Pebble will compensate for damage to wetlands, will satisfy regulators and many critics of the mine, Hamilton said.
“I expect that compliance (for the project) will switch the opinion of many individuals who have been insulted,” Hamilton said.
It appears that the so-called compensatory mitigation plan will need to use state land, requiring state support, according to a letter to the governor last week from Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham, and Rep. Louise Stutes, a Republican from Kodiak.
The lawmakers asked Dunleavy in the letter to not support Pebble’s mitigation plan.
Edgmon, in an interview, said the leaked videos raise serious doubts about the objectivity of the permitting process at both the state and federal level.
Both the Dunleavy administration and the Corps have said they are committed to a fair and vigorous review process.
In a three-page reply letter on Oct. 6, Dunleavy defended the economic argument for Pebble construction, though he does not expressly state support for it. As he has before, the governor did not express support for the mine, but said he does support a fair review process.
“No serious person would disagree that accessing the mineral deposits within the Bristol Bay Mining District, if done in a way that protects the watershed, would transform the lives of Alaskans living in the region,” he wrote. “My role is to ensure that each project is subject to a fair and rigorous review process, and that every opportunity to create thousands of jobs is fully explored.”
In the videos, Collier said Pebble plans to set aside state land for a preserve. He said the state has supported Pebble “behind the scenes.”
Collier also said he recently met with the governor “to get his commitment that they would be there” to support the project.
The governor’s office rejected that statement on Oct. 2.
“The governor has not committed to any proposal, including a draft mitigation plan,” said Jeff Turner, a spokesman for the governor, in a statement. “As far as Mr. Collier goes, both Pebble and Northern Dynasty have said he embellished his statements.”
Hamilton said Pebble has survived other challenges, including a threat by the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration that essentially halted the mine’s progress in 2014.
Those earlier challenges were based on what Hamilton calls a false narrative that the mine would destroy the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.
That message has been more harmful to the mine over the years than the tapes, he said.
Hamilton said the Corps has determined that the mine and the fishery can safely coexist, though conservation and fishing groups counter that the Corps’ determination is flawed.
The opponents add that the Corps found that damage from the mine would be extensive, including permanent destruction of more than 100 miles of streams.
The debate over the mine’s potential impacts to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery remains Pebble’s toughest challenge, Hamilton said.
“The idea that someone acted out and insulted people is not trivial,” Hamilton said of the videos. “But it’s not the heavily advertised narrative of fear that has had people concerned about the actual workings of this mine.”
“It’s bad, but this is not like the constant screaming that a mine will kill all the salmon,” he said. “That has been a powerful message of our opponents, but they are wrong.”