With salmon ballot measure’s defeat, Pebble celebrates

Members of the media walking to an exploratory drill rig at the Pebble Mine Exploratory site. (Photo by Jason Sear/KDLG)

By a significant margin, Alaska voters defeated Ballot Measure 1, commonly known as the Stand for Salmon initiative.

The controversial measure was aimed at increasing protections for Alaska’s most iconic fish. It would have significantly toughened the environmental permitting process for large developments impacting salmon habitat.

The outcome was celebrated by a key figure pressing ahead on another controversial issue: the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier said even though his company’s mine proposal wasn’t always at the forefront of the debate, the salmon habitat initiative was, in some ways, all about Pebble.

“It was clear that this initiative was aimed at trying to stop Pebble and to stop any other major significant resource development project in Alaska,” Collier said in an interview Wednesday.

Pebble’s push to develop a copper mine in the Bristol Bay region faces fierce resistance from groups who say it endangers the salmon fishery there, and many of those same groups supported Ballot Measure 1. But Pebble kept a relatively low profile leading up to the election. Although it contributed money to Stand for Alaska – Vote No on 1, the campaign against the initiative, it didn’t play much of a role in the opposition’s messaging.

But Collier said had Ballot Measure 1 passed, it would have posed hurdles for Pebble, both in getting permits and in seeking a new financial partner (the company lost a potential major investor earlier this year.) Collier said with the initiative’s defeat, he’s more confident about the Pebble’s prospects.

“We think that responsible development can now go ahead in the state with the rigorous permitting requirements that the state already has in place. And we’re eager to be part of that as we move forward,” Collier said.

A previous Alaska ballot measure in 2014 that more explicitly targeted Pebble did pass with a significant majority.

But during this campaign, Ballot Measure 1’s supporters were reined in from outright saying it would block Pebble; there’s a legal reason for that. The state challenged the initiative in court, saying it went against the state constitution for a ballot measure to prioritize land for one use – here, salmon – over other uses, like a mine. The Alaska Supreme Court thought some parts of the initiative did just that, and in August, removed those parts, allowing the rest to go on the ballot.

United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director and anti-Pebble advocate Alannah Hurley said she does not think the initiative would have halted the mine. But she believes it would have helped opponents’ cause by putting in place stricter standards.

Hurley also pointed out that the Bristol Bay region voted largely in favor of Ballot Measure 1.

“While those ideals did not prevail at the statewide level, it’s still a really clear indication about our region’s priorities and what we value,” Hurley said.

The Pebble Limited Partnership wasn’t the only mining company happy with the election’s outcome. Donlin Gold spokesman Kurt Parkan, whose company is trying to develop a large gold mine in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, said the measure would have delayed the project’s quest to get its major state permits by early next year.

Parkan said at a mining conference he attended in Anchorage the day after the election, attendees breathed a sigh of relief.

“I think people were surprised at how big the margin was, to win by over 60 percent … was huge, and people were pretty pleased with that,” Parkan said.

Parkan and other Ballot Measure 1 opponents said they could be willing to come to the table and negotiate updates to the state’s salmon habitat protections – but it would have to happen through the legislative process, rather than by ballot initiative.

The initiative’s supporters also said they plan to continue pursuing avenues towards updating Alaska’s laws protecting salmon habitat.

Shortly after the polls closed on election night, Ballot Measure 1 sponsor Stephanie Quinn-Davidson said she felt the campaign had changed the conversation about salmon in Alaska, no matter what the outcome was.

“It’s clear that Alaskans want stronger protections for salmon, but people have different opinions on how we go about doing that, and I’m confident if this doesn’t pass, that we have folks in the legislature that want to work on a bill that is going to get moved forward,” Quinn-Davidson said.

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Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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