Ah yes, the Process: Trump Slows Alaska Pebble Mine, Pushes Ahead on Wilderness Drilling


Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Trump administration has set out to undo works of the Obama Administration across America, and no place more than in the 49th State of Alaska. The administration has, however, set out to undo one piece of its own work.  In reversing course, it has set down two rules for dealing with the 45th president.  It’s who you know.  And it’s what channel the President watches all the time.

The Obama administration, using the Clean Water Act, tried to kill the mammoth proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.  The mine would be situated between two salmon spawning rivers feeding the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery. The Trump administration revived the mine assigning a friendly Army Corps of Engineers to study the project, and predictably concluding it would not cause harm to the $1.5 billion Bristol Bay fishery.  Greens protested.  Bristol Bay natives went to court.  But a green light seemed likely.

Enter the rich hook & bullet crowd.  Donald Trump, Jr., protested, to papa and in public, that the mine posed too much threat to Bristol Bay fisheries.  Right wing Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson came out in opposition. Bass Pro Shop founder Johnny Morris reached the White House with his objections.

“Did the big fish just talk,” Tweeted Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a longtime Pebble foe.  “Apparently yes – because Bass Pro Shop founder Johnny Morris, Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, Jr., are all a no on Pebble Mine.”

The administration punted on Monday, giving Pebble Mine developers 90 days to come up with additional measures to protect “aquatic life” in the area.  The “aquatic life” consists of 30-50 million salmon a year, with a commercial and sport fishery providing 14,000-plus jobs.

A moment for celebration, especially with all the fishing boats that go north to Alaska?

No!!!!  The administration has other major projects to drill, mine, and log in the 49th state.

The U.S. Interior Department has just announced a “record of decision” to begin oil and gas leasing in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The able Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, sneaked an amendment into the Republicans’ big tax cut bill to make it happen. The drilling area would be 1.56 million acres of the Coastal Plain of the 19-million acre North Slope Refuge.  But this is where the 110,000 animals of the Porcupine Caribou Herd go to have their young.  It is one place, close to the Beaufort Sea, that is somewhat free of insects.

The Refuge is one place on Earth that is still as God made it, with predator-prey interaction and a vast array of wildlife.  I have on my wall at home a picture of a muskoxen lumbering through our campsite on the Canning River, which forms the western boundary of the Refuge.  Haul roads, pipelines, and drilling rigs will come to the Canning if the petroleum industry has its way.

The Trump administration has also junked the “roadless rule” for the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.  The new policy would allow clearcutting of old growth rainforests, many of the trees flanking salmon spawning streams at low elevation. The Tongass used to be viewed mainly as a supply source for two big pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka.  The mills are long gone, but a revival of logging poses harm to recreation and fisheries.

One more opening up:  The Trump administration has a new plan that jettisons protections and throws open much of the vast (23 million acre) National Petroleum Reserve to oil and gas leasing.  The land is west of Prudhoe Bay. 

The Obama administration had sought balance, protecting migratory bird nesting areas around Teshekpuk Lake, and habitat of the Western Arctic and Teshekpuk Caribou Herds.  The area holds the highest concentration of barren ground grizzly bears in the Arctic, and wolves and wolverines. The Pebble Mine can be sacrificed, or put off, with much wider development in the offing.  The mine has never been popular in Alaska.  Opening the Arctic Refuge is popular, and has been sought by Alaska politicians and Big Oil for nearly 40 years.

It is strange to think of a major environmental victory, however temporary, influenced by America’s ruling family and worry about harming the Neknak River on while banks Eric Trump’s bachelor party was held. Cantwell is optimistic that Pebble Mine will never coexist with the salmon fishery.  “There is nothing Pebble Mine can say or do to mitigate an unmitigated disaster,” said the senator, who has fought the project for more than a decade. The Arctic Refuge is new prime battleground, and a potential race to get the oil industry in before the Trump administration is voted out.

“I do believe there certainly could be a lease sale before the end of the year,” said U.S. Interior Secretary (and former industry lobbyist) David Bernhardt. Sen. Murkowski described drilling approval as “a capstone moment in our decades-long push to allow for the responsible” development of more oil in the Arctic.

Not so fast.  As with Pebble, this will be a national battle.  No Trumps or Carlsons to deploy.  Ex-Republican Interior Secretary Gale Norton described the Coastal Plain as “white nothingness.”  So have other prominent conservatives who have flown over the drilling sites. But the Refuge has defenders, all the way back to naturalists Olaus and Mardy Murie, and their camp guest U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Doublas..

“The Trump administration is continuing its rush to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: There’s no good reason to drill in this iconic and sacred place. I’ll do everything I can to reverse this reckless decision,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


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