Salmon Vs. Gold Splits Alaska GOP

March 9, 2015

Salmon Vs. Gold Splits Alaska GOP

The proposal to dig a huge gold mine in a vital salmon spawning ground has pitted Republicans against Republicans. But the EPA’s attempt to ban it may bring them back together.
There’s gold in them thar…. swamps.

A lot of gold, in fact—up to $120 billion of it, lying within the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. Which is why a Canadian company, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., wants to dig one of the world’s largest open-pit mines to get it.

Naturally, there’s a fight. Mines are messy, and this one—the Pebble Mine—could threaten delicate salmon spawning grounds.

But this fight is different—because there are Republicans on both sides.

“I am a commercial fisherman; my daughter’s name is Bristol,” Sarah Palin said in 2006, while running for governor. “I could not support a project that risks one resource that we know is a given, and that is the world’s richest spawning grounds, over another resource.”

And there’s the rub: These aren’t just endangered fish that the Pebble Mine could threaten—they’re commercial fish. So, alongside the more typical coalitions of tribal groups and environmental organizations warning of a “three mile wide hole and 9 billion tons of waste...right in the heart of Bristol Bay” are a number of Alaskan conservatives concerned about the fishing industry and all it represents for Alaska.

Republicans against the mine have included former senator Ted Stevens (the fight has been going on for decades), two (other) former Republican governors, and a number of self-described Redneck Republicans in local Alaskan politics. Each side has their public opinion polls, but it seems clear that a majority of Alaskans are against it.

On the Green side, all the major environmental organizations are against it, celebrities including Robert Redford have been enlisted to oppose it, and major jewelers (including Tiffany, Zales, and Boucheron) have promised not to use any gold that comes from Pebble Mine. Not the usual allies of Redneck Republicans.

To be sure, some Republicans are supportive. Senator Lisa Murkowski, notably, has supported it, or at least, opposed the EPA’s efforts to regulate it. And Palin herself equivocated once she was in office—her own administration had ties to the Pebble Mine developers, and she loosened environmental restrictions affecting it.

It doesn’t help that Northern Dynasty is a Canadian company, that its major business partner pulled out in 2013, and that a successful ballot initiative now requires the Alaska state legislature to sign off on any mining permits. There’s also the small-c conservative argument against. The salmon industry is a known quantity (a $500 million-per-year quantity, to be precise), spawning grounds are scarce, and even a small leak from the mine’s tailings could be devastating. As that Redneck Republican, state Senator Rick Halford, put it in an interview with The Guardian, “If God were testing us, he couldn't have found a more challenging place.”

But leave it to the EPA to ruin a perfectly good bipartisan coalition.

Last year, the EPA announced that it would exercise a rare “veto” of the mine, even before an application is formally filed. That decision is expected any day now.

Preemptive regulatory vetoes are very rare; the EPA has exercised it only once before in 40 years. And this action has made the mine some new friends. Congressional Republicans have voiced outrage at regulatory overreach. Lawsuits have been filed alleging that the EPA unlawfully consulted with tribal groups, even coaching them on how to prepare petitions to the agency itself.

(To be fair, the EPA says it also met with mine supporters, and that all of the meetings with both sides were open and documented.)

On the face of it, this mine is a perfect case for a regulatory veto. It is enormous, and a full environmental review will cost hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars. Why go through the long and costly rigmarole if the Obama administration has already decided the mine is a non-starter?

We all know how the process would play out. Northern Dynasty will pay scientists to say that the mine and its waste will be safely contained. The environmental and fishery groups will pay other scientists to say it will be a catastrophe. The EPA will have to decide, and it’s already decided. “This really is one of the last best places” for salmon, a district head told The Washington Post.

Besides, the EPA has already completed a 627-page scientific review of the mine—ominously subtitled “Volume One”—released in January 2014. It’s not like they’re just saying no.

Still, it’s hard to see Republicans simply standing by while the EPA exercises almost unprecedented power—even if it would save the government millions of dollars in the end. Even if they’re against the Pebble Mine, they’re even more against regulatory power, and this is regulatory power on steroids.

That’s what led to Murkowski’s position—not quite supporting the mine, but definitely not supporting the EPA’s proposed veto—and it’s what’s undone the coalition that sockeye salmon had brought together. Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell has called the proposed veto “egregious,” “unprecedented,” and “beyond federal overreach.” Now the battle lines are looking more familiar: anti-regulation Republicans on one side, environmentalist Democrats on the other.

Maybe the best solution would be for the Alaskan state legislature, newly empowered by the ballot referendum, to vote against the mine once and for all. That way, everyone wins: the mine doesn’t get built, the fish are saved, the government doesn’t waste millions of dollars in a protracted regulatory process, and the EPA doesn’t expand its authority. Well, everyone wins except Northern Dynasty—but they’re Canadian.

There are plenty of worse scenarios. Millions of dollars will be wasted—first on the court challenges to EPA’s veto, then on the pointless regulatory review process—and we’ll end up in the same place, only poorer. Or maybe the process will be so antagonistic that more Republicans, and more Alaskans, will end up supporting the mine, if only to oppose the EPA. That would really be the worst-case scenario.

Any bets as to which outcome is most likely?
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