Put Pebble in perspective

Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2010

We can all imagine how hard it is to plan for something in the future when you don't have a good idea of what you're planning for. That's the dilemma facing the legislative subcommittee charged with crafting a plan to study potential environmental impacts of the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.

The committee met earlier this month and found itself stymied on what path to follow. That's because right at the moment, there's no concrete mine proposal on the table.

That fact hasn't stopped opponents from raising one of the largest public opposition campaigns in recent memory, a campaign that began in full force when serious studies on the proposed mine began in 2007. That's when Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals and London-based Anglo American formed a partnership to pursue the project.

The Pebble deposit, just north of Illiamna Lake, is estimated to be one of the largest accumulations of copper, gold and molybdenum in the world. Opponents, including environmentalists and Bristol Bay fishermen, fear that the potential size and scope of the project and its proximity to the Bristol Bay watershed will decimate the world's largest salmon run.

Without a doubt, the Pebble project has brought forth the most significant resource issue since the decision to tap Prudhoe Bay oil. Without question, Alaska lawmakers need to keep a close eye as the project progresses.

A six-member subcommittee of the Legislative Council, chaired by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, has $750,000 at its disposal to conduct a study of Pebble's possible impacts. The money was included in this year's capital budget. At various meetings, the group has heard from the National Research Council, state Department of Natural Resources and other experts, trying to determine how to craft a study and who to pick to conduct it.

Problem is, it's not at all clear what should be studied. That's because the Pebble partnership is still months away from formulating a final plan.

Chenault sees real problems here in making progress, especially in spending $750,000.

"It's like putting the cart before the horse," the Speaker said this week. "My concern is we're setting a precedent here without knowing what we're trying to study."

Chenault's concern about setting precedent is another problem. If the state sets aside money for independent studies on Pebble, what's to say it won't have to do the same for other mega-projects in the future?

We have a suggestion. Let the subcommittee keep watch over the progress as Pebble moves toward a final plan. Let legislators keep watch over DNR and other state agencies that will play a role in the approval process. That's part of a lawmaker's job anyway.

But let's hold off spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for independent studies on assumptions, only to find out later we assumed wrong. Further, let's not spend $750,000 of state money on studies that the permit process might already answer.

The permit process Pebble would need to undergo would last a minimum of three years without any hitches, and would probably drag on longer. That's when the real probing will do some good.

Until then, we have time to sit back, be patient and observe. And that costs us nothing.

In short: Let's know what Pebble mine will really be before getting all study-happy.

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