Another Alaska Overreach by the EPA

Obama’s EPA shoots down a mine proposal that doesn’t even exist yet.

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FILE - In this July 13, 2007 file photo, workers with the Pebble Mine project test drill in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma, Alaska. The battle over a copper and gold mine near one of the world's premiere salmon fisheries is headed to the ballot in a vote next week that has turned a normally sleepy local election into a national environmental debate.

Daniel Kish is senior vice president at the Institute for Energy Research.

The Environmental Protection Agency took another step last week toward preemptively vetoing a potential copper mine in Alaska. In a revised draft assessment, the EPA claimed that tapping the vast Pebble copper deposit would threaten sockeye salmon in the Bristol Bay watershed. This unprecedented power grab is not based on an actual proposal, but on a hypothetical mine.

As the largest undeveloped copper deposit in the world, the Pebble deposit in remote southwest Alaska contains 55 billion pounds of copper, 67 million ounces of gold, and 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum worth almost $500 billion to our economy, and is on lands owned by the state of Alaska. By weighing in before the submission of an actual proposal, the EPA is essentially seeking to squelch any potential development of these vast resources before a plan for the mine has even been presented. The EPA's actions are equivalent to locking cash in a bank vault and throwing away the key.  

If it strikes you as odd that the EPA would pass judgment on a proposal that doesn't exist, you're not alone. Scientists who served on the EPA's own peer-reviewed panel panned the agency's assessment, with one describing it as "hogwash." Another panelist remarked that "it is impossible to know whether the hypothetical mine scenario is realistic," and therefore it is "not sufficient for the assessment." The Obama administration frittered away $169,381 to organize the peer review meeting.

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The EPA claims it has the authority under the Clean Water Act to preclude the possibility of a project that hasn't even been proposed, but critics disagree. Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty called the EPA's assessment "unlawfully preemptive, premature, arbitrary, capricious, and vague" in a letter to the EPA. Alaska's Department of Natural Resources criticized the EPA for citing data from mines developed in the 1800s while failing to "consider current mine technology" to prevent environmental damage.

If the mine developers decide to move forward, they will have to submit an application for a Clean Water Act "Section 404" permit, required of any project that may disturb lands that are wet. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, $220 billion of investment annually is conditioned on the approval of 404 permits. For this reason, the National Mining Association warned that the EPA's premature assessment will have a "stifling effect on investment, as nearly all major industrial and manufacturing sectors require (Clean Water Act, section 404) permits and could thus be subject to similar ‘watershed assessments.'"

 Pursuant to its environmental agenda, the EPA should consider the effects of a limited copper supply on renewable energy development and electric cars. Copper dramatically enhances the efficiency of power systems that generate and transmit energy. Wind farms use copper primarily in the coils of transformers, gear boxes, auxiliary motors, and cooling circuits. Copper is also used extensively throughout solar photovoltaic energy systems.

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Electric cars, with their copper-guzzling motors, increase copper demand. As the wind, solar and electric car industries expand as EPA says they want them to, copper demand will only increase. If the EPA truly cares about environmental protection, it should promote rather than restrict copper development.

Unfortunately, the Pebble mine saga reflects the Obama administration's default position on resource development: reflexive hostility. Even though the Pebble deposit rests entirely on state lands, and mine developers have yet to apply for a permit, the EPA instinctively erects roadblocks and provides their allies in environmental fund-raising groups with talking points. 

As an Institute for Energy Research study demonstrates, opening up more lands for resource development would bring enormous long-term economic benefits. Instead of pursuing pro-growth resource development policies, the Obama administration is committed to an environmental agenda that limits American prosperity.

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