Now that the Pebble Partnership has settled its dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the company is focusing its attention on readying the world-class Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum project for permitting. The first move towards attaining this goal was to assemble an advisory committee that will provide valuable insights from a broad range of perspectives, including those that voiced concerns about building a large mine in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska where Pebble is located.
"In our view, this is the ideal time to expand our engagement with external parties to ensure the project we take into permitting, and the various environmental safeguards and partnership programs we build around that project, are as robust and responsive to stakeholder needs as they can be," said Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier.
Not looking to build a panel of consenting voices, the Pebble Partnership recruited respected and outspoken Alaska Native, environmental conservation and former military leaders as founding members of the committee.
“We don’t want any shrinking violets on our panel,” Collier told Mining News.
Pebble critic joinsKim Williams, the former executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai and an outspoken critic of developing a mine at Pebble, has been the most talked about appointment to the panel.
The sharpest criticism of Williams’ decision to accept a seat on the Pebble advisory committee has come from Nunamta Aulukestai, the Pebble opposition group she led for seven years.
Nunamta and Williams parted ways in early May, immediately after the Bristol Bay area advocacy group found out that she had accepted an offer to sit on the Pebble advisory committee.
Nunamta and other conservation groups see the formation of the advisory committee, and Williams’ appointment to it, as a way for the Pebble Partnership to buy influence by paying opposition to sit on such a panel.
"It's a very tried and true practice of large extraction companies to offer money to potential or actual opponents in hopes it softens the opposition or contributes to a building of the relationship," Joel Reynolds, a director and senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council told Alaska Dispatch News.
It is true that the Pebble Partnership has offered a US$30,000 per year stipend as a professional courtesy to compensate any committee members for their time, as well as the travel and other expenses that will be incurred for required meetings and other obligations of the panel. Members, however, are not obligated to accept these funds.
Williams, who remains steadfast in her stance on Pebble, has declined the honorarium.
Reynolds told ADN that he turned down an offer to sit on the Pebble advisory committee.
Good companyWilliams –who is widely recognized for her strong conviction, strategic mind and unwavering opposition to Pebble – has good company on the Pebble advisory committee.
The founding members joining Williams on the panel are: Willie Hensley, a respected Alaska Native leader; Jim Maddy, former president of the League of Conservation Voters and National Park Foundation; General Joseph Ralston, former vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Terrence ‘Rock’ Salt, former deputy assistant secretary, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A key player in the founding of NANA Regional Corp., and the ensuing development of the world-class Red Dog zinc mine on lands owned by the Northwest Alaska Native corporation, Hensley has seen first-hand the controversies and benefits a mine can bring to remote regions of Alaska and the people who live there.
During a 2014 presentation commemorating the 25-year anniversary of the Red Dog Mine, Hensley said, “It has been a revolutionary thing for our region economically and demonstrates the kind of development that can be done that not only benefits the local people but protects the environment.”
If done right, the retired Native leader sees the potential for Pebble to play a similar role for the economy of Southwest Alaska and the people who live there.
"Although the Pebble project has been a controversial development proposal in Alaska for a number of years, it also has the potential to make a significant positive contribution to the economic health of the Bristol Bay region and the state of Alaska,” he said.
Hensley believes the advisory committee is a good forum for stakeholders from all sides to have their voices heard.
“I have always believed it is better for Alaska Natives and all stakeholders in major development projects to have a seat at the table and bring their influence to bear to shape those projects to meet their needs and priorities,” he said. “I have every confidence that the leadership at PLP (Pebble Limited Partnership) is serious about listening and finding ways to honor the ideas and advice of this advisory committee, and other Pebble project stakeholders.
“I am also pleased by the inclusion of Kim Williams, an outspoken project opponent, because it demonstrates their sincerity about listening,” he added.
Maddy, a nationally-recognized leader in conservation policy and advocacy, believes that a healthy exchange of ideas is the best way to strike a balance between extracting the resources we need and respecting the environment where those resources are found.
"Developing America's natural resources responsibly – in a manner that protects important environmental values, respects other land and resource users, and meaningfully benefits local people – is clearly in the nation's best interests. But developers have to find a way to do it with the trust and support of not just regulators, but the people who use and live on and care about the land,” said Maddy. "It all begins with listening and sharing information.”
The environmental advocate said Pebble’s willingness to listen and share is why he decided to join the committee.
Committee businessAmong the first orders of business for the founding members of the advisory board is to recruit additional panelist to the committee.
The company hopes to have 10-12 members on the panel by mid-year.
At full capacity, the committee is expected to meet in Alaska at least twice a year and participate in video- or tele-conference in between.
This committee will likely to be the first to vet the mine plan the Pebble Partnership proposes to submit for permitting.
Collier told Mining News that wide array of designs for the various mine, tailing storage, mill location, supporting infrastructure, etc. have already been completed and determining the best project to present for permitting is a matter of selecting a combination of these various scenarios that strikes the right balance of economic viability, environmental stewardship and public acceptability.
Both Collier and Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen told Mining News that that the Pebble Mine to be presented for permitting will be significantly smaller and more streamlined than ideas that have been considered in the past.
In 2011 Northern Dynasty published a preliminary economic assessment that considered a 220,000-metric-ton-per-day operation at Pebble that would produce 31 billion pounds of copper, 30 million oz of gold, 1.4 billion lb of molybdenum, 140 million oz silver, 2.6 million lb of rhenium and 907,000 oz of palladium over a 45-year mine-life.
For a since of scale, even this larger mine design only accounts for about 32 percent of the known resource at Pebble.
The advisory committee, however, will likely be vetting a smaller mine that considers even a smaller portion of the overall resource.
Collier noted that member of the advisory council will not be bound by confidentiality agreements or any other limitation on their rights of public expression, including the right to oppose development of mine at Pebble.
For its part, the Pebble Partnership is not bound to adopt all of the suggestions the advisory committee throws its ways but said it will incorporate as many of these ideas as it deems feasible and appropriate.
The Pebble Partnership has committed to sharing the information generated by the advisory committee, including the recommendations it has adopted and those it has not.
Collier told Mining News that the Pebble Partnership looks forward to getting feedback from this panel of “forceful people with strong integrity.”
“I think it is going to be a very good thing for us to have a group that can give us advise,” the Pebble CEO added.