By MARK HAMILTON
(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series by Mark Hamilton about the history of the Pebble Project in Alaska.)
I’m not going to attempt to re-try the Pebble mine; it looks like that has been lost. In this series of columns, I will use data from that project simply because I have that data, and I can demonstrate the absurd assertions that doomed that project.
In this case, the limping truth will not save Pebble mine, but it might help you avoid being “pebbled” again.
Looking back at the history of Alaska’s move toward statehood, there are some characteristics of that effort that need to be rediscovered.
First, the citizens of the territory understood that circumstances had to change, or Alaska would remain essentially a colony useful primarily for its abundant resources. Those circumstances remain today in no small way. A big difference lay in the fact that Alaskans in the 1950s were aware. They understood that the current situation would doom Alaska’s economic future. They became aware that the resources, primarily fish and minerals, with some timber were largely controlled by other states. The focus was primarily the fish traps and the near monopoly of Washington state’s ownership of that asset.
I note with a bit of dark humor that our victory was short lived: All we got was the state; Seattle kept the fish. Nevertheless, fish are not the problem remaining to be solved.
Fish are a great resource, healthy, renewable, and heavily regulated. Barring some draconian modification of free enterprise, our fish will always be overwhelming owned by corporations outside the state. There are some real issues with some aspects of the fishing industry that I will cover in some detail later, but ownership of permits is a trend unlikely to change.
At the federal level, the primary point of contention during the statehood debate was Alaska’s economic prospects. Those against the move for statehood argued that a would-be state with no infrastructure and no businesses to provide a tax base would surely become a ward of the federal government. Those for statehood successfully argued that the enormous resources of the state would allow an economic future.
Less than a decade later, the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay made the proponents for statehood look prescient. Planning the movement of that oil required one of the most impressive engineering feats of the time—The Trans Alaska Pipeline System — TAPS. This magnificent project introduced Alaskans to new, yet still ineffective, opponent to our economic future — adamant environmentalists.
For the moment I will not explore the motivations of these opponents, but we should be familiar with their warnings. Hugely credentialed scientists warned: The pipeline will destroy the caribou herd, “caribou will go the way of the buffalo,” the pipeline will cause uncontrollable permafrost melting that is irreversible, earthquakes will make the pipeline a sprinkler system of crude oil, the pipeline will destroy Native culture. Dire predictions they were, and all wrong. Fifty years later, none of these things have happened.
The pipeline, 800 miles long, crossing three mountain ranges and crossing 30 major rivers and streams could never be permitted today. That may seem a bold assertion even though backed by every regulatory and permit expert I have asked the question. What has changed? The engineering is better today; the risks made even less likely today.
But the opponents are much more formidable. The primary reason for their ascendance is at least two-fold. First is the use of public media to rally individuals to take as fact the narratives of fear. Secondly, there is more than a cottage industry that makes a living off of selling warnings.
The formula is simple, repeatable, and lucrative. Begin with a picture of beauty. In Alaska, that is not much of a trick. Provide a narrative: This project (fill in the blank) will destroy this beauty unless you send us money to oppose it.
As most scams, the message attracts the unaware and the greedy. The lack of awareness is remarkable. In ads opposing drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in one case the picture of beauty that was supposedly at stake was a picture of the Tongass National Forest, 1,000 air miles away. There were several different views of Mount Denali, and reportedly one anti-drilling ad that used a picture of the Andes Mountains.
I understand how one could fool people living in California and New York, but citizens of Alaska?
Alaskans shouldn’t be pebbled.
The “Pebbled” series at Must Read Alaska is authored by Mark Hamilton. After 31 years of service to this nation, Hamilton retired as a Major General with the U. S. Army in July of 1998. He served for 12 years as President of University of Alaska, and is now President Emeritus. He worked for the Pebble Partnership for three years before retiring. The series continues next week. The first installment is linked below.