Is Alaska Turning into a Corpocracy? Part Two - The Mining Colony

By Hal Shepherd

In the early years of the young state, Alaska could claim to be a major influence on the budding national environmental movement. Because of its late incorporation as the 49th state, and ability to learn from already degraded ecosystems and the impacts of such degradation on local economies in many places throughout the Lower 48 states, the state legislature adopted fairly progressive laws for managing and protecting Alaska’s unique environment. The state’s contribution to the movement was also due, in part, to Alaska Native communities who stood against the federal government in the 1950s in an attempt to protect traditional subsistence practices, stop land giveaways, and prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in the Chuckchi Sea known as the “Project Chariot.”

In the 1988, Barry Commoner, has been referred to as having “followed Rachel Carson as America’s most prominent modern environmentalist,” and one of the primary critics of the science behind the predicted ecological impacts of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission’s proposal to detonate a nuclear bomb in, said, “Project Chariot can be regarded as the ancestral birthplace of at least a large segment of the environmental movement.” In fact, the combination of traditional environmental knowledge provided by the local communities and conventional science applied to stop the project was the precursor to the requirement that the federal government must study the environmental impacts of its actions. This, in turn, led to the adoption in the late 60s of the National Environmental Policy Act, now one of the most potent environmental laws in the country. 

Along with the development of laws and policies contributing to the birth of the environmental movement, attempts to balance Alaska Native culture and traditional resource use with access to the state’s vast natural resources have resulted in much political tension. The backlash against the environmental movement likely began with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and led a to rebellion against the federal government. This rebellion turned into a populist movement when the so-called “Merchants of Doubt” made up of major corporations established a misinformation campaign against health and environmental regulations and portrayed environmentalists as anti-jobs and anti-American. 

This campaign played out particularly well in Alaska where, in order to validate the exploitation of Alaska’s vast natural resources, the state’s increasingly conservative political leadership were all too eager to take on the battle cry of “federal overreach!” especially when it gave them leverage to roll-back environmental standards.  But when the state’s politicians blame the federal government for its economic problems, this doesn’t match up with the legacy of benefits the state continues to receive from the federal government. According to long-time Alaskan and historian Stephen Haycox, the attraction of the “boogeyman of federal overreach” to Alaska politicians was that it provided them with “a scapegoat that distracts from their own miss-management of the state.” 

A colleague recently described Alaska as “not so much a state as a mining colony” For example, Governor Mike Dunleavey’s (who immediately after taking office famously said “Alaska is open for business”) enthusiastic attempts to keep his administration’s policies in lock-step with former President Donald Trump’s autocratic approach to environmental regulation. When the Trump Environmental Protection Agency, for example, decided to suddenly drop opposition to the Pebble Mine project which would have disastrous impacts on the most productive salmon habitat in the world in the upper reaches of the Bristol Bay watershed, was right after Trump and Dunleavy met during Trump’s stopover at the airport in Anchorage in June of 2019. During the meeting, as if acting more like a lobbyist for Pebble rather than a government leader tasked with making decisions to manage natural resources in the best interests of all Alaskans, Dunleavy presented Trump with talking points urging the former president to rush the Pebble Mine permitting process and that had been developed by the Pebble Limited Partnership specifically for the meeting. 

The fact that the Dunleavy administration has never met a proposed mine that it doesn’t like, no matter what the environmental or economic cost, is best illustrated by Ron Thiessen of Northern Dynasty who was secretly recordedstating that with the support of the Governor, state and local governments would pay $1.5 billion for roads, ports and other infrastructure needed for Pebble Mine. These corporate subsidies would come at a time when the Governor is also proposing budget cuts for state and local government programs facing a budget crisis, including slashing$135 million from the University of Alaska’s budget (more than 40 percent of state funding for the institution).

Another recent example of corporate welfare occurred when the Dunleavy administration appeared to take advantage of the state-designated emergency declaration during the COVID-19 pandemic when the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) rushed through funding for the controversial Ambler Mine Road. According to AIDEA, the need to suddenly drop $35 million to start fieldwork during the summer of 2020 on the Road that would cut a 200-mile swath through the pristine Brooks Range foothills for access to the Ambler Mining District, was justified due to the coming economic emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Tom Boutin, AIDEA’s chief executive officer and executive director said: “The need for a quick start to work on the Ambler road justified emergency action, given the coronavirus pandemic-related economic crisis ensures that we won’t miss a minute of that 2020 field season.”

Boutin also states that this action is consistent with the Governor’s campaign “platform of resource development and building the economy back up.”

The Canadian-based Trilogy Metals Inc, with plans to develop several mines in the Ambler area, would be the primary beneficiary of the Road. The claim that throwing money at the Ambler project would somehow save Alaska from the COVID-related economic crises, has been called into question by other state political leaders who have said that the project is too expensive and therefore, is just another corporate giveaway to a foreign company. Similarly, the road will likely do little to save local subsistence-based economies from the pandemic because it will, over time, cause irreparable damage to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd and other economically important resources. 

Not surprisingly, therefore, during an emergency AIDEA board meeting to discuss the funding for the Road, opponents testified to the audacity of the agency for using the pandemic as cover to ram through an expensive project that is Alaska Native communities who will be negatively impacted.” Speaking by teleconference during the meeting, Rick Steiner, a marine biologist and environmental consultant based in Anchorage said in “times like these we see the both best and the worst of humanity and this AIDEA process is likely illegal, is some of the worst, and with respect, I think AIDEA should be ashamed of itself for trying to jam this proposal through without adequate public scrutiny.”

Another mining regulatory roll-back used by Dunleavy is his nomination of the Graphite Creek and other mines as “high-priority infrastructure projects,” in order to make them eligible for new legislation intended to fast track the permitting process. Title 41 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, (Fast-41), intended to be a surface transportation reauthorization and originally focused on highway, transit, and rail programs), establishes a new Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC), authorized to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process including the elimination of public review and comment. 

By calling these mines “high priority infrastructure projects” under the EO, the Governor gave the Council under the extraction industry sympathetic Trump administration, Dunleavy gave the FPISC legal cover to apply FAST-41 to such development.  According to the November 2020 edition of Critical Minerals Alaska, “Mining projects that supply the materials needed for the energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure in the U.S. may be eligible for Fast-41, thanks in large part to…Dunleavy’s nomination of [such projects] as high-priority infrastructure projects.” 

The Governor is using the same tactics of equating mining with infrastructure, including Graphite Creek and other mining projects under Executive Order 13766, a directive by former President Trump to “strengthen the U.S. economy by expediting the permitting of infrastructure projects.” The order requires the FPISC to establish expedited procedures and deadlines for designated projects, but only “in a manner consistent with law.”

Based on the fact, however, thatthe Graphite One mine will have substantial impacts on fish and wildlife resources upon which the Native Village of Brevig Mission and other members of the Inupiat and Yupik communities depend for subsistence uses, the Tribe has been trying unsuccessfully for years to get the Alaska Departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management to require proper water right and other permitting for the mine and conduct adequate environmental analysis of such impacts. As a result, to date, there has been no adequate environmental analysis of the potentially significant impacts that the mine will have on such subsistence resources. Currently, therefore, the only means by which such impacts can be fully analyzed is through the full state permitting process for the Mine.  Such analysis would not occur, however, if the mine is included as a sector under Fast-41 and Executive Order 13766, and the permitting is fast-tracked as the state is proposing. 

Under current state law, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game – the agency responsible for protecting fish and wildlife habitat on state lands and waters is required to approve a permit for a proposed mine or other development that impacts such habitat “unless the commissioner finds the plans and specifications insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.” Nowhere in state law, however, is the “proper protection of fish and game,” defined, leaving what constitutes such protection up to the sole discretion of the agency and, therefore, the political whims of the administration in office at the time. 

Further, because of a loop-hole in the state law that you could drive a steam shovel through, the Department of Natural Resources – the agency responsible for managing water resources in the state, can authorize a mining company to take a significant amount of water for up to 5 years from any river or stream in the state without having first, to obtain a water right permit. At the same time, Alaska tribes and private citizens who want to apply to DNR to reserve instream flows for protecting fish and wildlife habitat,must go through a rigorous and long term process for leaving water instream that even now the Dunleavey administration is working to make even more difficult.  

In sum, despite the constitutional mandate that public uses and the needs of fish and wildlife regarding the waters of the state’s waters must be protected, through a series of legal loopholes, refusing to adopt sufficient water and subsistence resource protection laws, increasing discretionary powers of state agencies, fasts tracking environmental impact analysis of mining permits and outright ignoring the rights of Alaska tribes and citizens to protect water resources, Alaska’s political leadership has been steadily handing over these rights to mining and other corporations, Then there is the current administration’s lobbying on behalf of mining companies, proposing to force cash strapped state and local agencies to pay the bill for large mining operations and subsidizing foreign companies to build mining access roads. 

These actions certainly seem to be more consistent with that of a mining corporation than a governmental entity that is supposed to manage natural resources and the economy act in the best interest of all Alaskans.