The Trump administration is throwing a lifeline to the massive Pebble Mine planned near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, as regulators move toward undoing Obama-era environmental restrictions that have thwarted the project.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday said it was resuming consideration of the proposed water pollution restrictions that have in effect stalled the project since they were outlined in 2014. Reconsidering the issue — after a year-and-a-half hiatus — is a necessary prelude to the EPA officially lifting the restrictions later.
The EPA’s action is a significant boost for Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and Pebble company supporters, who have called on the EPA to lift the Clean Water Act restrictions and let the proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine move forward.
Northern Dynasty rose the most since November on the news. Shares were up 27% in New York trading of 11 million shares, 10 times the three-month daily average.
Developers have touted the mine’s potential, saying it aims to tap “the most significant undeveloped copper and gold resource in the world,” with 6.5 billion tons of known minerals and an additional 4.5 billion tons of assumed minerals. The bounty of gold alone is estimated to be worth more than $100 billion.
But that mineral lode has been out of reach largely because of the project’s location in southwestern Alaska, in an area that drains into Bristol Bay, home to the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery. Conservationists, local activists and fishing operations have fought the project for more than a dozen years, warning it could jeopardize the region’s salmon — and a flourishing fishery with a catch that topped $281 million last year.
The Trump administration action targets the EPA’s 2014 proposal limiting the discharge of mining waste in the Bristol Bay watershed. The proposed restrictions, issued under then-President Obama even before project developers submitted a mine plan or formally sought government authorizations, could preclude the company from obtaining essential permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The restrictions can’t legally be finalized until 2021 because of a court settlement the EPA reached with Pebble Mine in May 2017. Until then, the EPA has agreed not to impose more permanent restrictions under a section of the Clean Water Act governing the dumping of dredged or fill material.
Developers have since sought a permit, and the Army Corps is evaluating the project’s environmental impact. But confusion about the status of the 5-year-old proposed limits casts a cloud over the process, EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold said in a memo released Wednesday. “By making a decision one way or the other, the region will provide much-needed clarity and transparency to the public,” Leopold said.
The EPA’s move follows calls to scrap the proposed restrictions from conservative and business groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The groups argued Obama’s EPA in effect issued a preemptive veto of the project, short-circuiting substantive review of the mine based on assumptions about what it would look like. Pebble also argued its new mine plan is significantly different from what the Obama administration anticipated.
Restarting the review doesn’t guarantee the proposed limits will be discarded, though agency officials have criticized the agency’s approach under Obama. Leopold’s memo also encourages the EPA to invoke provisions in the Clean Water Act that would ensure the agency remains involved in the Army Corps’ review of the mine permit application. That so-called elevation process can be used to spur negotiations over conflicting views of permitting decisions.
The United Tribes of Bristol Bay called the move political, saying it came less than two weeks after EPA officials met with community leaders and said they had no intention of changing course.
The project would have “devastating consequences on the watershed, the fishery and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods,” said the consortium of 15 tribal governments by email. “It is a purely political decision designed for a sole purpose: to clear the path for foreign mining interests to plow through a toxic project that no one wants.”
The Trump administration has taken an inconsistent approach to the project.
First, under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency proposed lifting the Obama water limits before Pruitt made a surprise decision to leave them in place eight months later. Now, the EPA is in effect reinstating the process that was underway before Pruitt’s pivot. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has recused himself from any involvement in the issue, because his former law firm Faegre Baker Daniels provided services to Pebble.
Northern Dynasty has been raising funds amid the government review. On Monday, the company closed the sale of 12.2 million shares, raising $5 million, saying it needed the money to fund the ongoing environmental impact study of the project and continued “outreach and engagement with political and regulatory offices.” It also sold large blocks of shares in March, raising more than $10 million.
The project still faces headwinds — including stiff political opposition in Congress, where a provision that would temporarily block the project was tucked into a House spending bill this month.