Murkowski opens up on Pebble, protecting Bristol Bay

By James Marshall | 11/18/2020 06:59 AM EST

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) wants the long battle over the Pebble copper and gold mine proposal to end.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) says she wants the saga over the Pebble mine to end.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) says she wants the saga over the Pebble mine to end. Francis Chung/E&E News

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) wants the long battle over the Pebble copper and gold mine proposal to end.

It was 2002 when mine developer Pebble LP’s parent company began exploring for minerals in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region.

The Pebble project, which targets a mineral deposit worth as much as $500 billion, has since become the nation’s most controversial mine proposal.


"People are tired of the Pebble fight," Murkowski said last week in an interview with E&E News.

Many in the region fiercely oppose Pebble because they fear that mining at the headwaters of Bristol Bay could decimate its famous sockeye salmon fishery. Others hope the mine will bring economic prosperity.

Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has generally been supportive of resource development and rigorous permitting processes.

But as the Army Corps of Engineers approaches the end of its review, she has become vocal in opposing the venture. The process has shown the Pebble mine doesn’t deserve a Clean Water Act permit, Murkowski said.

"I simply think it’s the wrong mine in the wrong place," she said at the Alaska Federation of Natives virtual convention last month.

Murkowski pledged that day to use her position at the helm of the Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee to protect Bristol Bay.

Pebble foes have supported appropriations language that calls for EPA to exercise its veto power as well as a measure that would block funding for Pebble permitting.

Murkowski included neither in her panel’s spending bill released last week. Instead, the subcommittee backed the Army Corps to arrive at what Murkowski sees as the only possible outcome: a denial of the Pebble permit (E&E News PM, Nov. 10).

Pebble’s final requirement is a mitigation plan to offset wetlands damage by restoring or preserving others in the same watershed. It submitted its plan Monday — two days before the deadline. The Army Corps said it would only make the plan public if it receives approval.

A second provision in the spending bill would set aside money in the Land and Water Conservation Fund to appraise the value of ecologically significant land in Bristol Bay. Murkowski has her eye on conserving Bristol Bay long term through a land acquisition.

Murkowski spoke with E&E News on the phone last week about her approach to warding off Pebble’s current mining bid and how she envisions conserving Bristol Bay in the long term.

You’ve been vocal about your opposition to the Pebble mine recently. How would your panel’s appropriations bill prevent Pebble from mining in Bristol Bay?

Some may look at this and say, "Well gosh, she’s just kind of restating the obvious in that the corps gave 90 days for Pebble to submit a mitigation plan."

What I’m saying and what I want to clearly reaffirm is the corps said 90 days to submit your mitigation plan that meets all of the requirements. I’m saying that 90 days is up.

They said they could not permit the project as it was proposed. And if this mitigation plan does not materialize [by today] and does not meet the requirements set out, then the corps needs to basically complete its end of the process, which is to deny a permit for the project. That’s what gets Pebble off the table.

Some advocates hoped for stronger language from you in the appropriations bill.

Everybody wants strong language that just makes Pebble disappear. They want strong language that just absolutely, positively takes it off the table.

What I think is not exactly understood is — even with the gavel as Interior appropriations chairman — I still have to work within the confines of the appropriations language and what my authority is within that.

What about long-term protections? Couldn’t Pebble reapply or another company apply to mine in Bristol Bay?

Then we move to the next step, which is basically taking this off the table for future development. You do that through an exchange or a conveyance.

But the first thing you have to determine is what’s the valuation for purposes of acquisition. So we are putting our money where our mouth is.

Are you talking about the federal government buying the land where the Pebble deposit is from the state of Alaska?

We are having conversations with people in the region and in the state about what this might look like. I have talked to people who have said this has been decades where we have wondered is Pebble going forward or is it not going forward.

We have to figure out, how do we end it? And not just for this particular Pebble Limited Partnership. If this is the wrong mine in the wrong place today, it will still be the wrong mine in the wrong place six years from now.

What can be done to ensure that the people in the region can move forward and that the state of Alaska — who selected these lands as part of statehood and they selected it specifically for mineral development — how they can also be treated fairly in this equation? These are the important discussions that are moving forward.

What if Pebble does come up with a mitigation plan the Army Corps approves of?

Given the in-kind mitigation requirements that the corps set out, I do not see a scenario that Pebble can meet the requested mitigation plan.

If in fact a plan is submitted that the corps believes can meet the mitigation, I will tell you it doesn’t change my view of this project that it is not the mine for this place.

The effort there is to again move forward with how we can permanently take the Pebble project off the table. What we would seek then to do — working with the state, working with those in the region — is to advance a conveyance or an exchange. I think just move more aggressively.

Wouldn’t an EPA veto also permanently take Pebble mine off the table?

Remember how ardently so many of us opposed a preemptive veto. And said, you know, preemptive is just not something that we can support.

The only way that the EPA can move forward with a veto is if there is something to veto. That would basically require the corps to move forward, issue a permit, and then the EPA moves in and can exercise its veto.

I think what we want to do is we want to conclude the process. We don’t need a [Clean Water Act Section] 404(c) veto because there has been no permit issued by the corps.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.