By Carey Restino
Last week, the pink slips started flying for Pebble Partnership employees. Anyone following the developments at the proposed Pebble Mine, where the major backer recently pulled out, expected downsizing would follow. Anglo American has invested more than $500 million in the project since it came on board, and its financial backing was the driving engine of the controversial effort. Without that money behind them, the remaining Pebble partners will need to seriously regroup, if that.
The reality of those who worked for the partnership in a region where jobs are scarce and winter is coming is far from rosy. Those who spoke when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy came to Iliamna in August told of how much these jobs meant to them and their families — how good it felt to be off public assistance and going to work each day, how it gave them a reason to focus on improving their lives. One can only imagine what the flip side of that looks like.
Is it better to have had those jobs and now lost them? Or is it worse. Did people take out loans they now can’t afford on snow-gos and vehicles, maybe even bought a home expecting that paycheck to be there for at least the immediate future. In the vacuum created by this change, is the fallout going to be worse than when the communities closest to the mine started out?
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It’s interesting to consider how everyone was focusing their attention on the EPA and its actions or inactions as the defining feature in this debate over whether to allow a large-scale mine. But the simple fact is that especially when it comes to big stakes like a world-class gold mine, what seems impossible to us — investing $500 million and taking a $300 million loss to pull out of a deal — is an absolute possibility. There is almost no guarantee that even if Anglo American had gone into the permitting stage with the Pebble Partnership, it wouldn’t have pulled out before the billions needed to be dumped into mine development. For companies that large, our scale of reality doesn’t fit.
The Pebble Partnership may find another partner and move forward with its plan and permitting, but even if it does, there is no guarantee that at any point along the way, plans won’t change. The price of gold may drop. The regulations may change. Another partner may have a change of heart.
That’s the reality of investors like this — their commitment is only as good as their profits are solid. This is all about money and nothing else, no matter how nice the folks may be who work there. And if the bottom line doesn’t pan out, change — swift, abrupt change — results.
As a state, Alaska chooses to put a lot of stock in developing its natural resources, and we have a lot of them. But like the dwindling reserves on the North Slope, and the yet-unexplored offshore reserves in the Arctic, no one knows from one day to the next if that paycheck will be there. One can predict and project until they are blue in the face, but there simply are no guarantees.
It feels like there ought to be some sort of balance to all this investing in tenuous future revenue sources. Perhaps we should put an equal amount of effort into a Plan B version of reality. We have a beautiful, relatively pristine state. That’s a resource, too, and one that can keep on giving as long as we require visitors to treat our natural beauty with respect. Alaskans are smart, hard-working people. Surely with the right leadership we can rise to the challenge of finding jobs for our people that aren’t so dependent on circumstances entirely beyond our control. Not that resource development will ever be nonexistent in this state, but this latest development sure smacks of the feeling of a lot of people putting a few too many eggs in one basket.
One last thought on this — if every dollar that has been spent in the last 10 years supporting or opposing the proposed Pebble Mine had been invested instead in the communities on the front lines of the debate, what would those villages look like? Probably a little more cheerful than they do today.
Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.
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