By MARK HAMILTON
(Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series by Mark Hamilton about the history of the Pebble Project in Alaska.)
As Alaskans, perhaps more than any other state citizenry, we face a difficult future if we do not proceed in the responsible extraction of our natural resources.
Virtually every major development will be “controversial.” There is nothing wrong with that word; it simply means there are opinions on both sides (or all sides) of the issue at hand. Still, it has become a reason to avoid involvement or even a deeper look. That is not a good plan.
Here’s why: Every major development will be met by that narrative of fear I referred to in the previous column.
“The project (fill in the blank) will destroy this, kill that, poison something… and so forth.”
That narrative of doom will be ended with: “Send your donation to X, so we can stop the destruction.” This will never go away because these groups are making a fortune with this technique.
In Alaska, we have seen these narratives since 1968. You may look at those predictions now and see them as absurd; but think how they sounded in the moment. These divinations prey on our fears. We all care about the animals, the Earth, the culture. Here are people of some authority telling us the project will destroy things we care about.
Today that message would appear on social media many times a day, and be on op-ed pages in newspapers multiple times a week. In the meantime, the would-be developer would be assessing the requirements that must be accounted for to receive the permit to develop the project.
There are criteria for approving resource projects. Lots of requirements. The rules tell you how to prepare. For mines, there is a book printed by the Environmental Protection Agency, called Hard Rock Mining in the Northwest and Alaska. The book outlines the requirements for pursuing approval for a mining project, critical to the prospect of having any mining projects in our state since it simply costs too much money and time to enter the project without a clear understanding of the requirements. It is essential to the industry that the requirements are complete and understood, in order to balance the enormous time and financial commitment required to pursue the process. As well, this listing of needed requirements is the public’s first assurance that no harmful project will be allowed. Clear rules and clear requirements that must be met ensure a solid process.
Knowing the criteria allows outlining the work to be done prior to presenting the project to the appropriate federal agency. The preparation will take years and several tens of millions of dollars of scientific and technical work.
At this multi-year stage, we are presented a very uneven dialogue. The alarmists are hard at work with their narrative of fear (still collecting donations), while the developer can only offer, “We are committed to following the rules and regulations.” That doesn’t strike an emotional chord compared to “The mine will destroy, poison, and ruin.”
Many are familiar with the often-told children’s tale about the shepherd boy, who being bored, decided to alert the townspeople to visit him by crying “wolf!” The town reacted in force and finding no threat cautioned the boy against such a prank. A short time later, bored again, he once again shouted “wolf!” Again, the town reacted, and this time angrier at the false alarm. As you may recall (or predict if you have not heard the story), one day a wolf did appear. The boy called “wolf!” over and over as the beast slaughtered the precious flock. No one came.
I can’t endorse the ultimate inaction of the villagers. The flock was critical. They should have reacted again. If it was another false alarm, they should have replaced and punished the shepherd boy.
There have been several calls of “wolf!” in my lifetime. In the 1970s we were warned of an impending ice age. This got lots of attention in major newspapers and either Time or Newsweek magazines. Without the marvelous social media we have today, the doomsday prediction spread slowly enough for a large majority of scientists to offer a counter argument that demonstrated that the earth had actually warmed. The ice age group was not a bunch of kooks. They proudly presented their data and conclusions to include the computer program they used.
Careful scrutiny by other scientists discovered the fault in the computer program that projected accurate data incorrectly. No one created their own data; no one was called an ice age denier. Competent scientists used their skills to disprove the original conclusion. It was simply a case of misunderstanding of a pretty recent tool—the computer and its program. It was settled with fact.
A similar event happened a bit later that involved the warning that the earth would relatively quickly succumb to overpopulation. This erroneous conclusion involved the extrapolation of measured population growth with the assumption that nothing would alter the birth rate.
Both of these predictions were ultimately dismissed, and both involved faulty techniques. Neither presented false data, and so were easy to unravel and discover the operational error that produced faulty results.
How very different today, when doomsday predictions, or scare tactics move so quickly, presenting virtually no data, or suspect data at best. They ride the cyber echo to viral status and become nearly impossible to erase or refute while they “pebble” you.
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.