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Debate over Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment should focus on NEPA process, not emotional hyperbole and over-simplification

With the public commenting period for the EPA’s revised Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment now closed, Environment and Energy Publishing’s Manuel Quinones zeroes in on the comments submitted to the agency in his latest piece for E&E Daily (subscription required).

According to the article, the battle lines are drawn on the push by environmentalist groups for a pre-emptive EPA veto of the Pebble project – a promising deposit of strategic minerals, including Copper, Molybdenum and Rhenium in Alaska, with both proponents and opponents weighing in heavily on the EPA’s assessment.

The drastic increase in public comments compared to the last public comment period underscores the significance of this issue: If the EPA continues down this road and is allowed to set this precedent, every exploratory domestic resource project may be in jeopardy of getting preemptively shut down.

As the comments show, environmentalists continue their usual tactics of fear-mongering, emotional hyperbole and over-simplification. Quinones quotes several opponents of the Pebble Project, who imply that the issue is simply a question of protecting Alaska’s salmon and its habitat vs. mineral exploration. However, the issue is far more complex. As American Resources Principal Daniel McGroarty has previously pointed out:

“Few focus on the way the “Not In My Back Yard” mentality morphs into environmental imperialism, empowering rogue rulers and harming the poor and powerless.

Consider the fact that copper – the primary product in the case of the Alaska mine in Cantwell’s crosshairs – is a critical technology-metal, no less than exotic elements like the Rare Earths. Case in point: The copper content of a single wind turbine weighs in at 3 to 4 ½ tons. Copper is also the source for Selenium, a little-known metal that is key to next-gen solar power systems.

So would stopping a U.S. copper mine save salmon? Or would it sacrifice wind and solar power we’re counting on to make the transition to a green economy? If we’re pro-salmon, we’ve got to be anti-copper – but if we’re anti-copper, won’t that make us anti-wind and anti-sun? Life isn’t always as simple as that “Save the Salmon” bumper sticker.

But for the NIMBY mentality, all that matters is stopping the mine. Where we get the metals we need is, well … someone else’s problem.”

A glaring example of emotional hyperbole is provided by the National Resources Defense Council, one of the key groups pushing the pre-emptive veto, saying of the Pebble Mine “We view this as one of the worst projects anywhere in the world today,” and, as quoted by McGroarty in his latest op-ed for the Wall Street Journal,“EPA’s study (and intervention) is critically important. If left to its own devices, the state of Alaska has never said no to a large mine.” McGroarty refutes the NRDC’s arguments in his WSJ op-ed.

Meanwhile, in an interesting turn of events, the Washington Post’s editorial board and the left-leaning Center for American Progress – both of whom are not known to be mouthpieces for the mining industry – have recently come out in favor of letting the established permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) take its course – which is encouraging.

In theory, even the NRDC has acknowledged the important role of NEPA, as this statement on its website indicates:

“NEPA is democratic at its core. (…) And because informed public engagement often produces ideas, information, and even solutions that the government might otherwise overlook, NEPA leads to better decisions — and better outcomes — for everyone. The NEPA process has saved money, time, lives, historical sites, endangered species, and public lands while encouraging compromise and cultivating better projects with more public support.”

All of which leaves us scratching our head wondering if, according to NRDC, this process should only be allowed to function if the deck is stacked in its favor to oppose a project …

As we have previously pointed out: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process was established to ensure adequate environmental protections for wildlife and habitat – there is simply no compelling reason to preemptively issue a veto and prevent a full and fair review.

This is the conversation we need to have.