It’s been deceptively quiet — with a few notable exceptions — within Alaska’s minerals sector this year.
Thanks to low metals prices and risk-averse investors, we haven’t seen much new mineral exploration in Alaska in 2013. That’s after a series of gangbuster years — 2011 set a record for investment in mineral exploration in Alaska.
But at the Department of Natural Resources, we remain very bullish on the magnitude of Alaska’s exploration potential and the future of Alaska’s minerals sector. And we are working hard to make Alaska more attractive to investors.
Earlier this year, the Parnell Administration and the Alaska Legislature moved forward with statutory changes designed to promote responsible resource development and to assist average Alaskans seeking to exercise their constitutional right to use state lands and waters. A number of these initiatives have the potential to boost our mineral sector.
One statutory changes of interest to miners was the Legislature’s passage of a wetlands primacy bill that gives state agencies a green light to evaluate and begin efforts to take over certain wetland permitting responsibilities from the federal government. The state already has assumed primacy for wastewater discharges, and with the Legislature’s blessing, we have begun a significant effort and analysis of wetlands primacy.
In addition, our department is continuing the efforts begun two years ago to reform and modernize its existing permitting and regulatory system to make it more timely, efficient and certain. This means tackling the permit backlog, continuing to look for regulatory and statutory improvements, and implementing significant technological upgrades for the benefit of DNR customers and the public.
One of our ongoing permitting efforts is House Bill 77, a pending bill to amend the statutes for land and water use authorizations. We’ve seen a lot of controversy over this bill, but a lot of it is driven by concern that our department is removing protections for state waters and/or fisheries or reducing public input. This is simply not the case. In fact, we expect more meaningful public input during our comment phases and improved coordination between agencies and stakeholder organizations regarding the management of our public water resources as a result of this legislation.
This fall, we plan to hold our third annual minerals summit in Fairbanks – with a twist!
This time, instead of focusing on strategic and critical minerals, the minerals summit will focus on the investment climate for Alaska’s mineral sector. This is an important and timely topic, and we expect much lively discussion. We are still assembling the agenda, but we plan to hold this summit on Friday, Nov. 22 in Fairbanks. Stay tuned for more details.
Also this fall, the department plans a new round of public meetings to collect new ideas from the public and industry stakeholders about how to improve our work and provide an update on our efforts so far.
Our overall goal with the multi-year permitting initiative is to responsibly develop our resources for the benefit of Alaskans and for that reason, our permit reform initiative isn’t a one-shot deal – it’s a commitment to continual review and improvement.
In some respects, the state’s efforts to simplify and improve its permitting system is at odds to what we are seeing come out of federal agencies – where rules, especially for small miners, are getting more and more complex, costly and burdensome. We are weighing in constantly with our federal counterparts to register our grave concern and encourage them to adopt rules that aren’t so harmful.
Perhaps one of the bigger headlines of the year was Anglo American’s decision to pull out of the copper-gold-molybdenum Pebble prospect. We suspect that the Environmental Protection Agency’s continued, ill-advised efforts to block large-scale mineral development on these state lands in the Bristol Bay region played a role in that decision. If EPA continues on this course, we will vigorously fight to preserve the state’s sovereignty.
While we continue to focus on improving the regulatory process, DNR is updating our assessment of the state’s mineral resources, taking on key collaborative projects related to modern mapping, building a state-of-the-art geologic materials center, and working with our sister agencies to promote Alaska to investors throughout the world.
Assessing the state’s mineral endowment and promoting responsible exploration and development requires new data in the form of geologic maps, and geophysics. DGGS completed a banner year by collecting more than 3,300 square miles of high resolution airborne geophysics, more than 250 square miles of detailed geologic mapping, and 2500 square miles of reconnaissance mapping and sampling. These data sets have proven critical in attracting new investment to Alaska.
There’s hardly room to discuss all of these topics, but I am particularly excited by the state’s new Geologic Materials Center under development in Anchorage. The current facility in Eagle River – featuring more than 60 shipping containers – is antiquated and bursting at the seams. Under the leadership of DNR and DOA, and with essential support from the Legislature and Department of Administration, the State has purchased a 100,550 square-foot building in East Anchorage to establish a new GMC. This facility will include private and secure viewing rooms, sample processing areas, public viewing areas, and warehouse space.
As State Geologist Bob Swenson has stated, “What this new facility will end up providing to industry and the geologic research community in Alaska is limited primarily by our imaginations.”