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Vol. 15, No. 35 Week of August 29, 2010
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: Resource quandary evokes famous poem

Coleridge’s ‘water, water everywhere’ calls to mind Alaska’s dwindling revenue sources despite varied opportunities for prosperity

By J. P. Tangen

For Mining News

“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” —The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge (1798)

As we approach the 2010 primary election (which will be history by the time this article is read), it is worth pondering how rapidly Alaskans, like the crewmates of the Ancient Mariner, are plunging toward oblivion in the midst of a sea of plenty. The warnings of those who opposed statehood are now beginning to take shape. Alaska will never be able to feed itself, they argued.

Proponents pointed to the vast wealth of the state and for a brief moment in time their faultless logic prevailed. But now a mere 50 years later, we find ourselves approaching the brink.

The timber industry is gone. The vast fisheries, which engendered Seattle fortunes, are a shadow of what they once were. Oil is on the decline. The dream of a gas pipeline has evaporated. Mining is under incessant attack. Even tourism, which was a tenuous industry at best, has been pretty much forced onto the ropes. The cause for most of these calamities is not uniform, but there is a common theme.

Timber was simply hounded into oblivion by thoughtless people who couldn’t see the trees for the forest. Perhaps turning Tongass timber into cellophane was not the best use for the Sitka spruce; however, it does seem like a waste to let it rot on the ground or die of beetle infestation. The willingness of Alaska to sell its fisheries into an ungrateful market is legend. It is only a curious twist of fate that the deadliest industry has found its way into folk hero status. Oil has been a wonderful benefactor and has taught us really bad spending habits for more than 30 years, yet anyone who cannot hear the sound of the pipeline being dismantled and the corridor being reclaimed isn’t listening.

The whole gas debacle gives a new meaning to the concept of a pipedream. Any hope that gas would fill the State’s coffers went down the tubes exactly four years ago, when God’s plan was revealed. Tourism, ironically, was an easy target. The imposition of water treatment standards so stringent that a cruise ship cannot tie up to the dock in Anchorage and take on municipal water without fear that if it spills any into the Inlet, it could be fined, has to be a new high in heavy-handed insanity.

Mining, which should be our brightest hope, finds itself fending off not just the environmentalists but now also the very people it would feed.

The ballad of Bob Gillam is so familiar to everyone by now, it is almost trite. He has successfully poisoned the well and the goose that drinks its water.

Pebble has been the target of initiatives on every front. Currently, half a dozen tribal entities from Southwest Alaska are petitioning EPA to use a rare power to stop Pebble before it even applies for the first permit. Litigiously speaking the Superior Court has determined that it wants to hear arguments as to why the Department of Natural Resources may have failed to do its job in issuing permits to the Pebble Project for the past 20 years. Legislatively speaking, the push is on to displace legislators who are not opposed to the project. A recent casual poll of a small number of candidates reveals that even super-voters, the people who frame our elections, have serious reservations about the project. So goes Pebble, so goes the mining industry.

The obvious problem is that the opponents to statehood were right. Alaska cannot feed itself without a vigorous resource development industry, and vigor is getting to be a rare quality. Our legislators, no matter who is elected in November, will arrive in Juneau to build a budget based upon anticipated receipts not in the offing. As burdensome taxation fails to result in sufficient revenue to support our lavish lifestyle, tax hawks will seek other prey. The descending spiral will push Alaska into the pit, probably – if the past is any prologue – just about the time the rest of America has recovered from the Obama recession.

The picture of thirst in a sea of plenty is hardly a pretty one, but it surely is one with which all Alaskans should become familiar. Somewhere among the electorate there must be at least a few souls who can spot the trend, but they are not selling the message very well. Perhaps it is now time to decide who will be the one to turn off Alaska’s lights after everyone else has left.

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