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Tina Casey headshot

Pebble Mine Decision Hints at New Ally for Corporate Environmental Activism

The Pebble Mine project in Alaska is the latest high-impact proposal that failed to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and grassroots opposition.
By Tina Casey
Pebble Mine

Corporate leaders seeking swift action on decarbonization may have a new ally in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Last week the notorious Pebble Mine project in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska (pictured above) failed to win a key federal permit from USACE, making it the latest in a growing series of high-impact proposals that have failed to overcome bureaucratic hurdles as well as grassroots opposition.

Setting the stage for the defeat of Pebble Mine

As a key permit-issuing office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has played a featured role in the series of defeated or delayed projects — sometimes proactively, and at other times with the force of public action pushing it along.

In a hint of things to come, back in May 2016 USACE denied a permit for a controversial coal export facility in Washington state. In 2016 USACE also touched off a firestorm of criticism when it approved a permit for another high-profile project, the Dakota Access Pipeline. However, a series of legal challenges later forced USACE to reopen the environmental review process for the pipeline, including two days’ worth of public hearings last October.

USACE was also still conducting public hearings on the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline in September and October. Former Secretary of State John Kerry effectively killed the project during the Barack Obama administrationDonald Trump pledged to revive it, but has been mired in the review process all during his tenure — and President-elect Joe Biden has already pledged to quash it again.

In addition, earlier this month USACE announced it would hold up a permit for a highly controversial, $9 billion petrochemical facility challenged by environmental organizations in Louisiana, though it has permitted the developer to continue work on stabilizing the site.

This month, USACE also withdrew plans to dredge parts of San Francisco Bay. The plan, which aimed to enable large oil tankers to pass through to refineries, had been met with furious opposition from environmental organizations.

The long road for Pebble Mine, and its developers

The Pebble Mine saga follows a similar trail. The project is aimed at exploiting one of the world’s largest copper-gold-molybdenum porphyry deposits, but critics say it would also cause irreparable damage to wilderness areas and to one of the most important wild salmon fisheries in the world.

The development rights were first secured by the Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals back in 2001, with various other firms including Rio Tinto later becoming affiliated with the project.

Fierce criticism of the Pebble Mine proposal by environmental organizations and local stakeholders soon attracted the attention of Tiffany & Co., which staked out a CSR leadership position in the jewelry industry when it publicly criticized the project in 2009.

Rio Tinto also joined the list of corporations signaling distaste for the project. In 2014 Rio Tinto withdrew its equity shares in Northern Dynasty and gifted them to local nonprofits.

The project also flunked an Environmental Protection Agency review in 2014, but as recently as 2018, it seemed headed for a quick review and approval by USACE.

USACE did release its final Environmental Impact Statement on July 24, 2020, but just three days later, the agency issued a public statement emphasizing that an EIS is not a permit to operate.

“The Corps reiterates that the final environmental impact statement (EIS) is not a permit decision and does not authorize operation of the mine,” USACE explained. “…The analysis in the final EIS will be used to determine if Pebble’s preferred alternative is permissible under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act.”

Apparently that statement was a red flag. On August 24, the office of U.S. Army Public Affairs issued a notice that USACE declined to issue a permit for Pebble Mine under Section 404.

While noting the economic development benefits of the project in terms of extractive activities, Army Public Affairs also noted that “as currently proposed, the project could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed and lacks adequate compensatory mitigation.”

“…the project, as proposed, would likely result in significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment,” Army Public Affairs continued.

The final hammer came down just last week, on Nov. 25, in the form of a letter from USACE to the Pebble Limited Partnership, posted on the EIS website. The letter reminded the partners that “discharges of fill material from the proposed project would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources which would result in Significant Degradation to aquatic resources.”

The letter also reminded Pebble Limited Partnership that USACE had described mitigation requirements that would compensate for those impacts, which apparently the firm did not address.

“Accordingly, the district engineer is denying your application for a DA permit,” the letter concluded.

A new ally on environmental protection

That is not the end of that. Pebble Limited Partnership has the right to appeal the ruling, and it probably will.

Those hoping for an assist from Tiffany and other leading consumer brands are barking up the wrong tree. If Pebble Limited Partnership loses customers in the jewelry industry, it could easily offset them. In something of an ironic twist, one leading customer could be the clean tech sector, where copper, gold, and molybdenum all feature prominently in solar cells, wind turbines, electric vehicles, batteries and other devices associated with renewable energy and decarbonization.

There is no easy solution, but a strong focus on environmental protection under the incoming Biden administration could have an impact — and USACE could be front and center. It is in a unique position to influence the pace of environmental progress due to its stewardship role over federal facilities, land and waterways.

Despite the Trump administration’s support for mining and fossil energy interests, USACE is a climate-aware agency that claims to have adopted sustainability as its operating principle. The Corps notes that its operations are defined by statue, but it also affirms its active role as an environmental steward, stating that “sustainability is an umbrella concept that encompasses energy, climate change and the environment to ensure today's actions do not negatively impact tomorrow."

USACE’s 2020 Sustainability Report and Implementation Plan strongly suggests it will play an important role in the years to come. The plan outlines specific action steps that are designed to “integrate sustainability more deeply into its mission and the organizational culture with every passing year.”

With the recent selection of Kerry as the special presidential envoy on climate change, USACE could become a crucial ally for business leaders seeking swift, decisive action on decarbonization during the Biden administration.

Image credit: Paxson Woelber/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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