With new letter, Alaska GOP Gov. Dunleavy stands alone in Pebble’s defense

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference at his Anchorage office on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference at his Anchorage office last year. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration continues to assist the company behind the Pebble mining project as it drafts plans to satisfy federal permitting requirements, and the governor this week rejected calls to condemn Pebble and stop his administration’s work on it.

Since the release of the secretly recorded “Pebble tapes” last month, Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators have distanced themselves from the project, which opponents describe as deeply politically unpopular. But Dunleavy, who’s also a Republican, says he has a responsibility to pursue projects like Pebble — if they can be safely built — to help improve the lives of rural Alaska residents.

Pebble’s proposal, he said in an interview, could unlock hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth for the people of Bristol Bay, the region where the mine would be built.

“We’ve got to go through the study process, permitting process. But if we can, wouldn’t we celebrate that? That it would lift countless people out of poverty? That it would provide economic opportunity for a depressed region?” Dunleavy said. “As opposed to saying, ‘No, we don’t even want to look at the science. We want this whole thing to stop now.’ I think that’s not my role as the governor.”

One of Bristol Bay’s political leaders, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said that the region would welcome Dunleavy’s help to expand its economy. But residents do not want that help to come in the form of the mine because of the threat it poses to Bristol Bay’s huge sockeye salmon fishery, he added.

“I think the governor should be working with the region, as opposed to telling the region what it needs and what it should do,” Edgmon said in a phone interview.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham (Skip Gray/360 North)

Edgmon, along with Kodiak GOP Rep. Louise Stutes, last week penned a letter to Dunleavy asking the governor to oppose Pebble’s development efforts, saying they’d been called into doubt when the company’s executives said on the secretly-recorded tapes that the project would be larger than they’d publicly indicated.

Dunleavy responded with his own sharply-worded message Tuesday, telling Edgmon that he “will not stop fighting for the people of the Bristol Bay region who continue to suffer from an acute lack of economic opportunity.”

“The American dream cannot be realized while constrained by dependence on government,” Dunleavy added.

Pebble is in the midst of developing a plan to meet federal requirements to offset the project’s environmental damage, and its executives said on the tapes that such a plan would require the use of state land. In theory, the state land would be protected to compensate for the project’s destruction of wetlands.

In his letter, Edgmon called on Dunleavy to reject Pebble “in deed or word if it seeks to use state land in any way” to fulfill the federal offset requirements.

But in a prepared statement, Dunleavy’s natural resources department said that in recent weeks, it’s still coordinated four meetings at Pebble’s request to discuss related state laws and regulations — though the agency stressed that it’s not providing any guidance to the company about how to meet federal standards.

A Pebble spokesman, Mike Heatwole, described its contacts with the agency as “preliminary conversations” to clarify the company’s understanding of state land management procedures and to make sure that its offset proposal to the federal government is accurate.

Dunleavy, in the interview, said the secretly-recorded Pebble tapes have not changed his mind about how the permitting process should work.

“Scratch off the name ‘Pebble’ and just leave it blank: Any and all projects in the state of Alaska should go through a rigorous process that has standards to ensure that the environment is protected and that the projects are viable or are not,” he said. “That hasn’t changed at all, and it shouldn’t change at all.”

The governor, a spokesman said in a follow-up email, had been “confused” by Edgmon’s letter, “because it did not reflect any interest in seeking out economic opportunities that can improve the quality of life for residents of the Bristol Bay region.”

“If they are steadfastly opposed to one proposal, what other resource opportunities do they support that create good paying year-around jobs?” the spokesman, Jeff Turner, said in an email.

While Alaska Republicans have long been enthusiastic supporters of natural resource development, Pebble has proven more polarizing because of the Bristol Bay region’s lucrative salmon fishery.

And now, Dunleavy’s refusal to condemn the Pebble is leaving him increasingly politically isolated on the issue.

Before the release of the tapes, both of Alaska’s U.S. senators said they don’t think the proposed project can be permitted. Afterward, Sen. Dan Sullivan went even further, saying he’s anti-Pebble amid attacks over the issue during his re-election campaign against independent Al Gross.

Given the project’s dwindling support, Dunleavy’s stance on the mine is one of the only things keeping it as a live political issue during a hotly-contested election season, according to one political strategist.

“It’s wonderful. He’s helping elect Al Gross,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant.

Lottsfeldt is working with a super PAC that’s running Pebble-related attack ads against Sullivan; he said voters see Gross as a more vocal mine opponent.

“If you truly believe Pebble is dead and buried, then you have less reason to support Al,” Lottsfeldt said in a phone interview. “But as long as Pebble stays alive, all the benefit accrues to Al Gross.”

Sullivan’s campaign manager, Matt Shuckerow, reiterated that the senator has already declared his opposition to the project, and has even tweeted: “No Pebble mine.”

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