With Alaska’s Pebble Partnership, The EPA Waves the Precaution Flag

May 24, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes​.com on May 24, 2012.

On May 18, the Environmental Protection Agency took sides with opponents of Pebble Partnership, a company exploring a copper deposit, some 200 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska. Pebble is probably the largest accessible aggregation of copper‐​bearing minerals in North America.

The Obama Administration has been under relentless pressure to stop Pebble—much more of the pressure emanating from hordes of bicoastal environmentalists as opposed to citizens of sparsely populated Alaska. EPA’sAssessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska is designed as the first step to do just that, before the Pebble developers have even submitted one permit application.

All of this has very little to do with the welfare of Alaskans. It has much more to do with the President pleasing his environmental base. In fact, it seems that the less that one has been to Alaska, the more one knows what’s best for it. The dinosaur media, especially in northeastern cities, is particularly exercised about the stretch of desolate Alaska that is Pebble—land that was traded by the federal government to the State for mineral development, in exchange for the some land that became Lake Clark Park and Preserve.

EPA’s Assessment ignores this history and the positive economic impact $7 billion of new infrastructure would bring to a place without a diverse economy. The Assessment is designed to be used for regulation based upon the “precautionary principle”. This darling of the global left states that “if something has the potential to cause harm, it shouldn’t be done”. The UN’s a big fan and reports are that they have been sniffing around parts of Bristol Bay looking for a way to get in on the Pebble issue. In fact, its Framework Convention on Climate Change—the scaffold upon which the failed Kyoto Protocol on global warming was erected‐​is based on the precautionary principle, noting that a lack “full scientific certainty” should not provide grounds to preclude regulation.

In other words, if you can’t prove that something will not cause harm—pretty much a logical impossibility—you can’t do it. The precautionary principle is the opposite of the much more productive Song of the South, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Under the precautionary principle, there is simply no way that antibiotics would ever have been marketed, had scientists had known of the potential for bacteria to mutate into resistant strains. There would be no airplanes or cars (they can and will crash, you know). Even today, New Jersey and Oregon won’t let you pump gas because your car could explode (and the price of gas must therefore go up).

EPA did its Assessment in response to a petition by a collection of environmental groups requesting that the Agency pre‐​emptively prevent Pebble before it can present its plan and show how it will comply with environemtal laws. So far, that has cost those making the exploration investment about $500 million. The ostensible basis for EPA siding with the environmental opponents is an obscure section of the Clean Water Act that supposedly grants EPA the authority to assess environmental impacts of human activity on watersheds.

While the Agency says that its Assessment passes no judgment on whether or not Pebble proceeds, it is also clear that the document is precisely and specifically designed to be the basis for precautionary principle‐​based litigation. Evidence of this is that it launched the Assessment with a big press conference in Seattle, of all places.

The Assessment assumes a large open‐​pit mine, but Pebble has yet to decide between an underground, a pit, or some combination. When all is said and done, here’s what the Assessment takes hundreds of pages to say:

• An open‐​pit mine and associated tailings will obstruct or alter a exceptionally small percentage of small streams in the massive Bristol Bay watershed that supports the world’s largest natural sockeye salmon fishery.

• An infinitesimal portion of the region’s massive wetlands will be destroyed.

• Some fish will die.

• Some people in the indigenous cultures of Bristol Bay, and hungry bears, may therefore have fewer fish.

• The history of Alaskan mining shows that piles of rocks (tailings) do not go away.

Translation: There is some potential for a—perhaps detectable—effect on the culture and ecology of the Bristol Bay watershed. So, if you want to invoke the precautionary principle to stop Pebble, gentlemen, start your lawyers.

And when that occurs, people should ask, as they smugly drive their hybrids (and pressure the government to mandate millions more) where the copper that wires these vehicles is to come from? If price is any guide, supplies are increasingly tight. Wouldn’t it be a shame if the cost of slamming Pebble shut was to price hybrids even more out of the market?

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