Alaska mine backers seek national profile with promise of economic boom

The group behind a controversial gold and copper mine proposal in Alaska is conducting a full-scale economic analysis of the project, hoping the promise of a job boom will grab national attention and shift the debate away from concerns about potential harm to the state’s fishing industry.

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The effort by Pebble Partnership to emphasize the economic benefits — to both the state and the nation — of the proposed mine comes as Alaska’s commercial fishermen raise concerns about the long-term impact on the sockeye salmon population.

The potential for a mining vs. fishing fight now risks putting Alaska’s congressional delegation in a tough spot — facing pressure to choose between two industries important to the state’s economy. 

The results of a looming Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment of the mine’s watershed impact could also turn the issue into another election-year energy talking point.

“I think being able to better inform the whole conversation on the jobs potential of this outside of the state of Alaska will be important,” said Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, the group behind the proposed mine in the Bristol Bay area of southwest Alaska.

“The fishery is an important economic engine out in this state, but it’s highly seasonal,” Heatwole told The Hill.

The Pebble Partnership has contracted IHS Global Insight, an economics consultancy firm, to compile a study on the proposed Pebble mine’s state and national economic impact.

Earlier estimates by the Pebble Partnership claim the mine will directly create 1,000 “high-skill, high-wage” and 2,000 construction jobs.

The Pebble Partnership anticipates the mine will produce a haul of 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum, which is used in alloys.

But Alaska’s commercial fishing industry is on edge about the project, said Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Waldrop told The Hill any sort of mine in the Bristol Bay region would disrupt the Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon population, a claim that the EPA supports.

He noted the new emphasis on jobs has the potential to thrust the mine proposal in the national spotlight.

The commercial fishing industry employs 8,000 people in Bristol Bay, Waldrop said. He added that the EPA estimates the fishery there brings in $370 million annually.

Alaska Sens. Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowksi (R), along with Rep. Don Young (R), have so far been able to avoid offering an opinion on the mine because no final plan exists.

The Alaskan congressional delegation has, instead, focused its attention on the EPA.

All three lawmakers say the agency is acting too aggressively by wielding a watershed impact test as a way to kill the project before it has a chance to get started.

With the EPA scheduled to release the results of its water test in the fall — which will determine the immediate fate of the mine — the Pebble mine could become a factor on the campaign trail.

Republicans have made drilling and mining a focal point of their economic plan, casting President Obama as a hindrance to new exploration that could spark an economic recovery.

Alaska, long a friend to oil, gas and mining companies, has drawn national attention for its plentiful resources.

Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman for Begich, told The Hill earlier this week that the Democratic senator wants the Pebble mine application to go through the full review process.

She said Alaskans need to know the full effect of the mine to ensure they don’t simply trade one industry for another.

Robert Dillon, Republican spokesman for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Murkowski’s aide on energy issues, said Alaska has a strong history of supporting commercial and sport fishing.

But Waldrop said Alaska has been kind to the mining industry as well. He said any mine, no matter how small, would be a threat to the commercial fishing industry.

Waldrop acknowledged an economic analysis for the mine proposal will yield juicy prospects.

But Waldrop noted the economic benefits will end when all the minerals have been recovered, whereas the sockeye salmon industry could last forever if left unharmed. He said previous attempts to reintroduce salmon to post-mining regions have floundered, highlighting the long-term danger if the fish population is depleted.

“Do people want something that will end, or something that will last into infinity?” Waldrop asked.

That assessment leaves out the possibility of economic development from the mine, Heatwole said.

Pebble Partnership plans to invest in workforce training programs, he noted.

High-paying jobs and year-round activity from the mining operation could stimulate spin-off investments that boost the region’s standard of living, he added.

Heatwole also said the debate on the mine has too quickly devolved into a choice between natural resources or the environment.

He said EPA has based its analyses on practices the mining industry abandoned nearly a century ago. Regulations now require resource balancing that will keep the fishery intact, he said.

“Their mining scenario could not be permitted in the United States today,” Heatwole said. “We have a difference of opinion on this being an issue of choice versus coexist.”

-- This story was updated at 2 p.m.