Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 5:11 PM on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rhetoric battles reality at Pebble project

By Andrew Jensen
Morris News Service - Alaska

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series looking into the rhetoric and the realities of both sides of the Pebble mine debate. Part 2 will run next week.

"What a reality check."

With that sign-off, a young woman from Iliamna who stars in the latest two-part commercial from the Pebble Limited Partnership marks the halfway point of her 120-mile hike from the mine deposit to Bristol Bay.

By emphasizing the distance from the deposit to the bay, the commercials attempt to dent opposition arguments that the proposed Pebble mine will foul the pristine waters of Bristol Bay and the world's largest salmon run.

The Pebble ads sparked a quick and angry response that accused the partnership of plans to "tear up" salmon streams in the Bristol Bay watershed.

And so it goes in the ongoing fight over the Pebble project, where the battle is being waged on the rhetorical planes of hypotheticals, public relations campaigns and lawsuits without an official mine plan to examine or permit applications to contest.

The latest round of televised volleys is a perfect illustration of the efforts to frame the debate — and how both sides often miss the mark.

The Pebble ad correctly notes the distance from the deposit to Bristol Bay, but the literal take on "Save Bristol Bay" campaign ignores the fact that protests against Pebble have always relied on its proximity to the major streams and rivers that feed Bristol Bay, not the bay itself.

For the opposition ad, it correctly notes the issue is the streams and rivers near Pebble, but then goes on to accuse the developers of plans to destroy salmon spawning streams. The partnership has not released a plan that would support this charge, let alone declared any intentions to "tear up" salmon streams.

Extreme rhetoric doesn't make either side look good.

To make the case against Pebble, opponents have assailed the mining industry in general, the integrity of state regulators who will manage the permit process and the "foreign" mining companies Northern Dynasty of Vancouver and Anglo American of London, who own the mineral rights.

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively drew headlines in the midst of a lawsuit challenging exploration permits at Pebble when he referred to opponents of the project as practicing "legal terrorism."

Shively was referring to discovery requests from Trustees for Alaska that could have topped 1 million pages were they all turned over. In the end, about 250,000 pages of documents were either provided or made available.

The lawsuit itself, with the trial over and Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth now deliberating on the constitutionality of the state's exploratory permit regime, is another example of where rhetoric has met reality in the Pebble fight.

The suit by Trustees for Alaska, brought on behalf of Native village coalition Nunamta Aulukestai, alleged Pebble's exploratory activities are causing environmental damage and that such impacts require public notice and comment before permitting activity.

The fact that exploration at Pebble since 2004 has coincided with several years of historically large salmon runs, with another strong run forecast for 2011, was elicited from biologist and Pebble opponent Carol Ann Woody by the state's attorneys at trial.

Mining proponents occasionally note that Alaska's most famous salmon brand is Copper River and that the development of Red Dog mine in Northwest Alaska has improved fish habitat by controlling the zinc runoff.

However, while Pebble has run ads with the message that fisheries and mining can co-exist, selling the mine as a salmon enhancement project is a bridge too far even in this heated rhetorical battle.

Conflict minerals

The stakes at Pebble are high, and what began as a local conflict quickly became a cause celeb around the world for conservation interests. As such conservationists often state in the context of climate change, we must consider the global impacts of our activities.

In such an interconnected world of finite resources and burgeoning demand, then, the fight over Pebble must take into account the global consequences of whether to develop a resource and what are the responsibilities of those who stop a project when mineral extraction is simply shifted to another part of the planet.

Pebble isn't just any ore deposit, it is a find in mineral terms every bit as world class as the salmon streams it borders, with an estimated value of $400 billion.

According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, Pebble could potentially triple U.S. reserves of copper, increase its gold reserves by 50 percent and make America the world's largest holder of mineral molybdenum, an essential component of high-strength steel alloys.

Not least in importance is the potential economic impact it could have on the most poverty-stricken part of the state with a shrinking population and high unemployment.

So while China is snapping up mineral rights for essentials like copper and stockpiling its rare earth minerals — for which the U.S. is 100 percent dependent on imports — not developing Pebble may not be a luxury America can afford forever, according to Yale professor Oswald Schmitz.

"These things are going to come to a head more and more because countries are going to claim sovereignty over rare minerals and they're going to hoard them, and we may not have those choices," said Schmitz, who co-teaches a class called "Linkages in Sustainability" that uses the Pebble mine as an example of the development choices made in America that have ripple effects around the world.

Schmitz and Thomas Graedel, who co-teaches the class and whose specialty is industrial environmental management, wrote an article examining this global tension over minerals in April 2010 entitled "The Consumption Conundrum: Driving the Destruction Abroad."

The most provocative aspect of the article challenged the conventional wisdom that those opposing Pebble hold the moral and ethical high ground on the issue.

"When you have a full belly, it's easy to protest," Schmitz said. "But at the same time, by pushing the damages on to other parts of the world or denying access to minerals, you're denying access to a higher standard of living we enjoy, and because of that (standard of living) we can protest things like Bristol Bay.

"We have the time. We have the money. We have the luxury of doing that where people in other countries don't. So it becomes a justice issue, an environmental and distributive justice in terms of wealth."

Moore money

Within Alaska, the most well known opponent of Pebble is Anchorage millionaire Bob Gillam of McKinley Capital Management, who owns a lodge at Lake Clark near the Pebble deposit and has sunk millions into efforts to stop it.

No individual has contributed more money to the Pebble opposition, however, than billionaire Gordon Moore.

Moore, the retired co-founder of Intel Corp., has given at least $10.3 million in grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation since 2003 to Pebble opposition groups.

A $2.4 million grant to the Alaska Conservation Foundation helped fund the permitting lawsuit, with about $550,000 paid to Trustees for Alaska by ACF since 2009, according to its website.

There also are the more than 70 jewelry retailers around the world who have signed on to the "No Dirty Gold" campaign by Earthworks, with dozens of them also signed on to the "Protect Bristol Bay" pledge vowing not to purchase gold from Pebble.

Pebble CEO Shively is largely dismissive of the jewelers signatures as a public relations campaign without real merit that costs retailers nothing while buying favor from environmental groups, especially with gold production at Pebble a decade away even under a best-case scenario.

But the wealthy Moore sticks in Shively's craw a little more given that Moore earned his fortune thanks in large part to the extraction of minerals like copper, gold and scores of others that make up vital components for his ever-shrinking micro-processors that have fueled the technology revolution and the global consumption demand.

"It does bother me that people like Mr. Moore, who have gotten rich in the IT industry, fail to recognize that their industry uses about 15 percent of the nation's energy," Shively said. "There's a huge disconnect with these people who have gotten rich in the dot-com businesses and what has gotten the economy to where their businesses can grow and prosper."

Shively, who takes great pride in his role developing Red Dog mine and the economic boom it has brought to Northwest Alaska, said environmental groups fighting Pebble in impoverished Southwest Alaska are doing what they do best.

"They're great at opposing stuff," he said. "What are they doing to help people that need jobs? It's easy to stop something, but how do you grow something?"

Moore Foundation spokesperson Genny Biggs said the organization has supported mine projects in salmon ecosystems in British Columbia where compatible, but, "With specific regard to Pebble," she wrote in a statement, "we believe it represents an unacceptably high risk to Bristol Bay's ecosystem and renewable-resource economy."

Other groups opposed to Pebble, such as Trout Unlimited, also are careful not to come off as anti-mining. TU Alaska head Tim Bristol said the anti-mining rhetoric pointed toward Pebble could damage the entire industry in the state.

"Frankly, in a lot of ways, Pebble sucks all the air out of the room for everybody — conservation interests and the mining industry," he said. "In some ways you wonder if this ends up being bad for mining in Alaska in a weird way because it creates so much heat on its own and you worry about people taking advantage of that to paint all mining development in all places the same way as bad and polluting in a way that can't be controlled."

Bristol said the consumption conundrum is something "we all struggle with when we're having a conversation over a couple beers."

"I know it's tough," he said, "because there's a lot of gold and copper in there. Unfortunately, the ore body can't be moved around."