Officially, Governor Mike Dunleavy is not taking a position on the mine. But the new governor is already making moves that have encouraged the mine’s backers and worried its opponents.
One of the most controversial issues Alaska's leaders have ever had to wrestle with is the proposed Pebble Mine. The new governor is no exception.
Officially, Governor Mike Dunleavy is not taking a position on the mine, unlike his predecessor, Bill Walker, who opposed it.
“So the Pebble Mine project, just like any other natural resource development project, will be subject to an established permitting process,” Gov. Dunleavy said in an emailed statement. “The outcome of this process will determine if the project meets the standards set forth in law and regulation.”
But the new governor is already making moves that have encouraged the mine’s backers and worried its opponents.
One of those statements was made during Dunleavy’s first major public appearance after being elected governor.
Dunleavy was speaking a mining conference in Anchorage, where he proclaimed that “Alaska is open for business.”
The governor gave a shout out to the Red Dog Mine, where all three of his daughters work. He spoke about his roots in the mining community of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which he called the "anthracite coal capital of the world."
Gov. Dunleavy also mentioned pretty much every other mine or planned mine in the state by name: Donlin, Pogo, Kensington. But the name of the biggest political hot-potato of a mine ever proposed in Alaska -- the Pebble mine -- didn't leave the governor’s lips.
But Pebble-watchers took note of another name Dunleavy specifically took the time to praise:
“I want to recognize somebody else who is sitting here somewhere I think. Is John here? John Shively? John Shively!” Dunleavy said, to applause.
Shively is former Chief Executive and current Chairman of the board for the Pebble Limited Partnership
Dunleavy’s callout to Shively at the miner's conference is one of several signals he’s sent that have caught the attention of people on both sides of the Pebble debate.
Take the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Jason Brune, for example. He now has the power to issue key permits to the mine. From 2011 to 2014, Brune worked for Anglo American, the mining company that had partnered with Pebble until 2013.
Brune has a history cheering for the controversial mine on social media. Last year, he joked in a tweet that Santa had answered his Christmas wishes when Pebble began the federal permitting process. And when the late Pebble foe Bob Gillam was rumored to be a candidate for the Trump administration’s Secretary of Interior, Brune tweeted, “God help us @realDonaldTrump, I thought we wanted to make America great again?””
In an emailed statement, Dunleavy chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock says the governor considers Brune’s time at Anglo American “a valuable asset”
“When and if such projects move to the permitting stage, his insights will greatly assist the department in determining if the Pebble Project, or any other, meets Alaska’s stringent environmental standards and protects all resources,” Babcock said.
Babcock also noted Brune “has no financial interest in the Pebble Project.”
Brune’s tweets are still a big concern for Mark Niver with Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, a group that opposes Pebble.
He said, “That's a definite sign that the Dunleavy administration is pointing towards wanting to push that project forward.”
In the past, Dunleavy himself has aired opinions that worry Pebble’s opponents. When Anglo American exited the project in 2013, then-state senator Dunleavy wrote an op-ed lamenting the mining company’s departure and noting the thousands of jobs Pebble is projected to create.
He added, “If I am asked to make an important policy decision such as Pebble, I would base that decision on science and facts rather than rely on innuendo, mass-media advertising or political posturing.”
Dunleavy may not say he’s pro-Pebble, but Pebble is definitely pro-Dunleavy. A number of Pebble employees, including John Shively and CEO Tom Collier donated to his gubernatorial campaign. The governor’s statements, then and now, are exactly what they want to hear.
In an interview shortly after Dunleavy’s election, Collier pushed back when asked if the political winds were now blowing in Pebble’s favor.
He said, “I think the way you asked the question kind of assumes a premise that I think is an incorrect one, and that is that this process is primarily a political process, and I don't think it is.”
Collier’s long-held public position is that he wants the permitting process to go forward without what he calls “political interference.” And because Dunleavy is echoing that message, Collier is happy.
“We're pleased to see Mike be the next governor, and we think that he will clearly let projects like ours into the permitting process and make sure that process is rigorous and thorough. And then the results will speak for themselves,” said Collier.
On the other side of the table, Pebble opponents are also watching the new governor and his appointees closely. For now, some key voices against large-scale mining in Bristol Bay are reserving judgement.
“I think we’re still kind of collecting our thoughts,” said Norman Van Vactor, President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, which vehemently opposes Pebble.
While he and many other regional leaders express strong criticism of the state and federal permitting process, developing a constructive relationship with Dunleavy and his staff is a priority.
“I don’t want to be too judgmental because we haven’t had that opportunity to meet them in person, and I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, again, based upon what we’ve read and what we’ve heard, we definitely have some concerns,” said Van Vactor. “But we’re looking forward to actually having some face-to-face meetings and hopefully developing some working relationships.”
Pebble will need dozens of state permits if it wants to build the mine. It hasn’t submitted for them yet. It’s not saying when it’s planning on doing that, either. But when it does, state agencies will need to make some important decisions.
For example, Jason Brune, the Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner who used to work for Anglo American, could be asked to review Pebble’s application for a permit to dispose of the mine’s waste.
But even if Pebble submits for state permits, the process moves quickly and it gets everything it wants from the Dunleavy administration, that’s not the end of the story.
Forces beyond the governor’s office will also influence whether the Pebble mine gets built. In addition to state and federal permits, mining within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve requires legislative approval because of a public initiative that voters approved in 2014. And Pebble will need to secure permits and agreements with the Lake and Peninsula Borough and private landowners to build roads and a transportation corridor. Another key factor is that the Pebble Limited Partnership is still in need of a financial partner.
Analyst Chris Mancini with Gabelli Gold Fund, which is invested in Pebble, said he views Dunleavy's election as a positive sign for the mine's future.
But Mancini added that there's a big caveat:
“What's more important is who is going to be president when the record of decision is made, and who is going to be leading the EPA,” Mancini explained.
Looming over the whole process is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s the federal agency that proposed placing restrictions on the mine under the Obama administration -- restrictions Pebble says would have made the mine impossible to build. While the Trump administration reached a settlement with Pebble, allowing them to start the permitting process, the EPA will still have to decide whether or not to finalize those restrictions that would effectively put a stop to the Pebble project. It could make that decision by the end of 2019 if the federal permitting process continues as scheduled.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to release its final environmental impact statement for the project in late 2019. After the Army Corps completes that part of the federal permit application process, the EPA can make its decision about finalizing the restrictions.
So whether Dunleavy turns out to be a Pebble ally or not, it’s leaders in Washington, D.C. who could decide the fate of the most controversial mine in Alaska.