Pebble execs say Murkowski and Sullivan no barrier to controversial mine

A group called Environmental Investigation Agency recorded Pebble CEO Tom Collier speaking on a video conference call with people he thought were potential investors. They weren’t. (screengrab from Environmental Investigation Agency tape)

CEO Tom Collier thought he was talking to a pair of potential investors in the Pebble Mine, a controversial project at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

Collier told the pair they don’t have to worry about Alaska’s U.S. senators blocking the project. Lisa Murkowski had expressed concerns that the mine proposal did not meet environmental standards, but Collier said she’s just trying to satisfy constituents on both sides of the issue.

“The way that Sen. Murkowski has done that is that when she’s asked a question she says things that don’t sound supportive of Pebble, OK?” Collier said in a video conference call that was secretly recorded on Aug. 24. “But when it comes time to vote, when it comes time to do something, she never does anything to hurt Pebble. Never.”

Pebble CEO Tom Collier at a U.S. House hearing in 2015. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Collier wasn’t speaking to potential investors. The men were working for a group called the Environmental Investigation Agency. The group made video recordings of three online conference calls that took place Between Aug. 17 and last week. They provide a peek behind the curtain, showing how the Pebble CEO and the top executive of Pebble’s parent company, Northern Dynasty, describe their controversial mine when they’re trying to woo investors, and how they portray their political leverage with the senators, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the White House.

The environmental group released about an hour of the video clips on Monday, arranged by subject. Alexander Von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, said they edited out the voices of the men posing as investors to protect their identities. An actor reads their questions in a few spots, but for the most part, the tapes are just long stretches of the two executives talking, downplaying all potential hurdles, political and regulatory. He said the videos were legally made because everyone was in jurisdictions that allow recording of conversations as long as at least one party to the call consents.

“We were shocked to see the difference between what the CEOs of these companies said to us in private, compared to what they told the public,” Von Bismark said. “They told us that once the permit gets through, their plans to massively expand this mine will be unstoppable, and we think the public deserves to hear that as well.”

Collier, reached shortly after the environmental group made their tapes public, said he hadn’t heard about them, but he listened to a reporter’s paraphrase of his taped comments. He said he wanted to learn more before he could comment.

Sen. Murkowski’s office did not respond to emailed interview requests on Monday.

The tapes are a gift to mine opponents, and they include a few surprises. For instance, the executives said they’ve discussed building a road to the Donlin Mine, about 180 miles away, so that ore from Donlin could be shipped out of the port Pebble plans to build on Cook Inlet. They also told the “investors” that they expect the state to finance the road and port.

A Donlin representative didn’t respond to a message Monday.

The Aug. 24 call took place the same day Murkowski and Dan Sullivan put out their most definitive statement to date against the mine. The senators said they agreed with federal regulators that Pebble should not get its federal permit. But in another call, on Sept. 17, Collier told the “investors” the senators had misread the regulators and are now too embarrassed to admit they thought the permit was being denied, so they’re not saying anything.

Collier said Sen. Dan Sullivan, who will be on the November ballot, is hoping to “ride out the election” and remain silent on Pebble.

“He’s off in a corner being quiet,” Collier said. “So I think that’s our plan to work with him is: leave him alone and let him be quiet.”

An aide to Sullivan said the senator hasn’t change his position.

“On August 24, Sen. Sullivan issued a strong statement supporting the administration’s decision that Pebble has not met the high bar required and that a federal permit cannot be issued,” the aide, Amanda Coyne, said. “Sen. Sullivan continues to stand by that statement.”

Much of what’s on the tape is similar to the way the executives have described the project in public. They’ve said they scaled back the project’s size and removed the use of cyanide, to “de-risk” the mine and make it less controversial. Pebble has applied for a permit for a mine that they say would last 20 years, and Pebble has repeatedly said that any future potential expansion would require a new environmental permitting process. But on the tapes, they speak of an expansion and future permits as expected events, and they contemplate a project that lasts well beyond 20 years.

“The first deposit that we’ve discovered at Pebble — and there will be more — but the first one lasts 180 years,” Thiessen said in one call.

Thiessen also spoke of friends in high places, in Juneau and Washington, D.C.

“We could talk to the chief of staff at the White House anytime we want,” he said, but he added: “It’s better for us if we wanted to push that envelope if Tom (Collier) talks to the governor of the State of Alaska and the governor of the State of Alaska picks up the phone and calls the chief of staff to the White House.”

Collier also suggested they have a close relationship with Sen. Sullivan’s office, citing as evidence an apartment that former Pebble CEO John Shively rents from a top Sullivan aide, Renee Reeve.

Sullivan’s spokeswoman said Shively has been renting the apartment since before Reeve went to work for the senator.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.