Federal decisions on Pebble Mine and the Willow drilling project aren’t the final word

small bodies of water dot the tundra
The proposed Pebble Mine site, pictured in 2014. (Jason Sear/KDLG)

It’s been a busy week for federal decisions about Alaska resources. The Bureau of Land Management announced that it is inclined to allow ConocoPhillips to develop its massive Willow oil project. Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stopped the proposed Pebble mine with a rarely used power.

So what happens now?

Alaska Public Media D.C. correspondent Liz Ruskin fills us in on Alaska News Nightly, with host Casey Grove.


The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Casey Grove: Liz, let’s start with Pebble. We’ve reported that the Environmental Protection Agency used its veto authority over the Pebble mine. What does that even mean? Because I thought the Corps of Engineers already denied Pebble’s wetlands permit.

Liz Ruskin: You’re right, and it’s complicated because this goes beyond the permitting decision the Corps makes about whether Pebble can get a permit to dump its waste rocks into river drainages upstream from Bristol Bay. The Corps has already said no to that. Pebble is appealing. But the EPA has special powers. Basically, the Clean Water Act of 1972 gives the EPA the authority to reverse a wetlands permitting decision made by the Corps. And, according to the EPA, it can do this at any time, before or after the permit is issued. So this week, after considering it for about a decade, the EPA issued its veto. Or, in EPA-speak, exercised its 404(c) authority.

CG: And you’re saying this is in addition to the permit rejection that Pebble is appealing? 

LR: Yes. Not only that, but it’s also telling Pebble, “Don’t bother just tinkering with your mine plan.” It essentially draws a line around an area that includes Pebble Mine’s footprint and says, “You can’t dump your rocks here.”

CG: And is this a final decision?

LR: Yes and no. It’s final in that the EPA has gone through its entire process and issued its veto. Done. But Pebble says it will appeal, so I don’t think we’re done writing stories about Pebble.

CG: OK, let’s switch regions and switch industries, from mining to oil and discuss Willow. 

LR: Yes, it’s been a bit of a head-spinner, especially for the anti-drilling side. They went from celebrating with their brethren who were trying to stop the Pebble Mine, and then they got bad news about Willow. But it’s good news for ConocoPhillips. They really got what they wanted.

CG: But what happened today is not final when it comes to whether the Willow project will proceed?

LR: Yes, the Bureau of Land Management has identified its preferred alternative. And now the Interior secretary will decide whether to go with this slightly scaled down version of the project, scale it back further or even reject it entirely. Interior really made a point of saying today that BLM’s selection of a preferred alternative isn’t the final word.

In fact, as long as we’re talking about not having a final word, opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge haven’t given up. Today 55 mostly Democratic members of Congress introduced a new bill that would reverse the 2017 decision opening coastal plain of the refuge to oil drilling.

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

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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