New Pebble tapes: ‘You aren’t held to your promises’ in election season, mine exec says

Man in car. Subtitle quotes him saying "you aren't held to your promises"
Ron Thiessen, CEO of Pebble’s parent company, was secretly recorded talking to men he thought were investors. (Still from EIA video)

The environmental group that captured executives of the Pebble Mine bragging about their sway over Alaska’s senators and governor have released new footage from those secretly recorded sessions.

On one, the head of Pebble’s parent company, Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen, tells the men posing as investors that they don’t have to worry about any statements politicians make during the election season.

“it’s the kind of season, once it’s over, everybody forgets what everybody promised to do,” Thiessen said in a session recorded Aug. 17. “You aren’t held to your promises.”

Thiessen did not specify whose promises aren’t reliable. He spoke a few days before both Alaska senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, issued statements agreeing with an Army press release that said the Army Corps of Engineers could not issue a permit for the application Pebble submitted.

For Sullivan, it was the first time he’d publicly opposed the Pebble Mine.

The environmental group recorded another call with Thiessen and then-Pebble CEO Tom Collier on September 14. Collier told the pretend investors Sullivan was just hoping to ride it out to election day.

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

Once that recording was made public, Sullivan responded with a more forceful statement against Pebble.

Sullivan challenger Al Gross has been playing the quiet-in-a-corner tape in his campaign ads. He said Thiessen was telling the truth in the newly released recording.

“Sullivan clearly plans to break his promise opposing the Pebble Mine as soon as the election is over,” Gross said. “And we can’t trust Dan Sullivan to keep his word on this or anything else.”

Sullivan Campaign Manager Matt Shuckerow said Al Gross attacks the incumbent to cover for his own lack of vision and other deficits.

“Sen. Sullivan has been extremely clear: No Pebble Mine, as he said over and over,” Shuckerow said.

RELATED: Pebble execs tell ‘investors’ Murkowski and Sullivan are no barrier to controversial mine

Danielle Grabiel, a team leader of the Environmental Investigation Agency, said the new releases are from the same recordings made in August and September. She called it “standard practice” for the organization to release recordings in batches. EIA is trying to get more information out to influence the permitting decision, not the election, she said.

“We are a conservation organization, and we’re not a political organization,” she said. “It wasn’t our decision to make politics part of this irreversible (permitting) decision, but clearly the tapes show that politics has been at play.” 

When EIA released the first batch, she said they were under time pressure because they expected the Army Corps was about to release a Record of Decision. (That document, known as the ROD, has not yet come out.) Grabiel said they later found more relevant statements, and they’re releasing them now because they’ve heard that a decision might again be imminent.

“We feel that the more the Alaskan public knows about that the decision-making in the Pebble Mine process, the better,” she said. “And so we we tried to be inclusive of a wide variety of topics that were discussed in these many hours of conversation.”

Pebble CEO Tom Collier resigned after the first tapes came out. The company disavowed the political strategies he spoke of on the tapes. But Grabiel said Thiessen should be held to account, too.

“It’s striking to us that he remains at the helm of these companies as these companies are pushing for this project,” she said. “Tom Collier, you know, resigned and it seems to us that he was a bit of a sacrificial lamb.”

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole declined to comment, saying the company had already addressed the tapes.

The new batch of recordings also reveal that Thiessen expected the State of Alaska and other Alaska entities to pay $1.5 billion to fund most of the project infrastructure.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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