Today in Washington, a landmark environmental law is under attack. Politically motivated groups are pressing the Obama administration to ignore the National Environmental Policy Act and rush a decision on a copper mine in Alaska.
This lobbying and PR campaign is probably the greatest threat NEPA has faced since it became law more than 40 years ago, but public awareness is low.
How has this threat gone unnoticed?
Probably because the company proposing the mine – the Pebble Partnership, where I serve as CEO – isn’t the one putting NEPA in danger.
Instead, environmental groups are running the campaign to subvert and evade NEPA. This runs counter to many political stereotypes, I know. But the campaign is real, and if the activists win, the consequences will be felt across the nation.
The Pebble deposit, located on state land in southwestern Alaska, is one of the world’s largest copper reserves.
This mineral is essential to modern life. It is used in everything from power lines to smartphones to automobiles. The U.S. imports about 35 percent of the copper it needs.
My company wants to invest at least $6 billion building the Pebble mine, and we expect it will support roughly 15,000 jobs across the U.S. for three decades and perhaps much longer.
So far, we have spent eight years and over $500 million conducting geological, engineering and environmental studies to prepare a formal permit application to state and federal regulators.
When the application is submitted, NEPA will be triggered, subjecting both our mine plan and our environmental safeguards to years of exhaustive review by regulatory agencies, environmental groups and the general public.
My company will have to prove that building and operating the mine won’t hurt Bristol Bay’s salmon populations and the region’s commercial fishing industry; that southwestern Alaska can have both fishing jobs and mining jobs.
If we can’t clear the high hurdle set by the NEPA process, we won’t get a permit, and there will be no mine.
But don’t take my word for it.
NRDC President Frances Beinecke hailed NEPA as the “green Magna Carta,” which has “worked well to protect our national treasures and resources.”
The NRDC has even fought sensible bipartisan reforms to NEPA, fearing they would put regulatory reviews on the “fast track.” NEPA “works as it stands,” Beinecke says, “and it should stay that way.”
Except, that is, when NEPA gets in the way of the NRDC’s agenda.
To block the Pebble mine, the NRDC is proposing the ultimate NEPA “fast track.” Rather than wait for my company to apply for a permit, and rely on the “green Magna Carta,” Beinecke and movie star Robert Redford are demanding the Obama administration act now by issuing what’s known as a “preemptive veto.”
This unprecedented and legally dubious move would completely circumvent NEPA.
It would prevent my company from submitting a permit application, and replace years of painstaking NEPA reviews and due process with a snap political decision.
In everyday terms, it would be like a teacher failing a student before they take the exam.
For now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t rewarded the NRDC’s hypocrisy by issuing a premature veto. But the EPA did rush out a “watershed assessment” that speculates about copper mining impacts for Bristol Bay.
Instead of waiting for our permit application, EPA simply guessed what the mine would look like, assumed my company would use century-old technology and environmental practices, and relied on so-called research from anti-mining advocacy groups like Earthworks.
This report is completely unscientific, but predictably, the NRDC says it’s good enough to justify premature action by the EPA.
This isn’t just a problem for Alaska.
If environmental activists can kill one project by evading the NEPA process, you can bet they will use the same strategy again and again, until it’s routine.
In fact, activists are already planning a Bristol Bay-style “watershed assessment” for the Great Lakes, which could be used against all kinds of construction projects in the industrial Midwest.
That’s because tens of thousands of other projects nationwide, including highways and housing developments, need the same kind of earthmoving permits as the Pebble mine.
According to consulting firm The Brattle Group, projects that go through this permitting program are worth $220 billion a year to the U.S. economy.
I respect people’s questions about the Pebble mine. But those questions should be answered according to science, engineering and the law – not the political demands of activist groups.
John Shively is the CEO of the Pebble Partnership and led Alaska's Department of Natural Resources from 1995-2000 under former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles.