Biden Plan To Reportedly Block Alaska Mine Access Draws Industry Ire: 'Frankly, I Am Disgusted'

Zinger Key Points
  • Controversial access road divides native groups.
  • Decision would be at odds with administration’s goal of domestic metals supply chain.

The mining industry and state of Alaska slammed the Biden administration's reported plan to block a controversial access road to a mining district, saying such a move is politically motivated, illegal and at odds with the need for domestic sources of key minerals.

In an environmental analysis due this week, the Interior Department planned to issue a "no action" recommendation for the proposed Ambler Road project, effectively blocking the 211-mile artery that would connect an existing highway to a remote area in northwestern Alaska where mining companies want to explore for copper and other minerals, according to media reports.

Such a decision would hand a victory to environmentalists who said the road threatens pristine Arctic habitat for caribou and fish and endangers drinking water for native tribes and rural communities.

But copper is a key mineral needed to build renewable energy sources to help combat climate change, which also threatens the Arctic.

The tension underscored the sometimes conflicting environmental goals of the Biden administration in an election year while also pitting native groups against each other.

Alaska Says Decision Would Violate Law

An executive with Ambler Metals — a joint venture between Canada-based Trilogy Metals Inc. TMQ and Australia-headquartered South32 SOUHY that was exploring the mining district — said the company was "stunned" to hear that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was planning to deny the access project.

"We strongly urge BLM to reconsider what would clearly be an unlawful and politically motivated decision that goes well beyond the narrow set of issues the courts agreed to allow the agency to address," Kaleb Froehlich, managing director of Ambler Metals, said in a statement.

Also Read: Energy Transition Metals At Stake: Potential US Mining Law Update Pits Industry Against Environmentalists

 With more than $32 million in cash, Trilogy Metals said it was "well positioned" to consider its options.

The access road would also cross state mining claims owned by Valhalla Metals Inc VMXXF which the company stated contained copper and other metals. The company said it planned to confer with Alaska officials to examine legal options.

"For an administration that talks about the importance of a domestic supply of critical metals, the importance of secure domestic supply chains and mandates to transition to a green energy and transportation future, this decision makes no sense," Valhalla's chairman Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse said in a statement. "Frankly, I am disgusted,” he added.

For the state's part, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority said a decision to block access to the mining district would violate federal law, as well as promises made when Alaska became a state in the late 1950s to allow the development of state lands.

“Announcing the denial of the Ambler Road adds insult to injury," Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement. "To hinder access to our responsibly managed resources and then force America to import minerals from countries with questionable environmental practices is not just ironic — it’s irresponsible and unacceptable.”

Native Tribes Divided

State development officials point to economic benefits of developing the mining district,  including taxes, royalties and jobs.

"We deserve the same opportunities as the billion-dollar donors and conservation groups trying to lock us into a state of poverty with the highest food and energy prices in the nation," said P.J. Simon, first chief for the Allakaket Tribe.

"Without access to running water or sewer, how are we supposed to be healthy people? Projects like the Ambler Road help us to develop skills and secure jobs that empower our people, much like Trans-Alaska Pipeline did in the 1970s," Simon added.

Not all native groups feel that way.

Several tribal governments and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 villages in Alaska's interior, sued to stop the road. But three of the tribes, including the Allakaket, withdrew from the suit. 

The NANA Regional Corp., a native business entity, fought the suit along with the state and Ambler metals. But Doyon Ltd., another native corporation, said in an October letter it would not renew an agreement on land use for the road.

"After three years, we still have no agreement with any relevant party to ensure that the impacts of the project or the mining district are mitigated by benefits to our corporation and its shareholders," the letter said.

A Chilling Effect On Exploration

Gregory Beischer, CEO of Alaska Energy Metals Corp. AKEMF, told Benzinga that if the Biden administration blocks the access road, it could have a chilling effect on mining exploration in Alaska in general.

"This will stand as a precedent for where federal permitting can go under a Biden administration," said Beischer, whose company's project in Alaska is not close to the Ambler district and wouldn't be directly affected by the decision. "This decision is contradictory to the U.S. regaining a position of independence and autonomy in supplying itself with the critical minerals and materials it requires."

Interior Department spokesman Tyler Cherry declined to comment for this article. 

"Local communities have spoken, and the Biden administration listened," Dan Ritzman, the Sierra Club's director of conservation, told Benzinga. "This has been a bad idea from the very beginning because of its significant impacts to water, wildlife, landscapes and the people who rely on them. Any benefits are not even close to the costs."

Amid the need for metals like copper for the energy transition, the Sierra Club advocates for planning that "begins with robust recycling and moves on to development in appropriate places," he said. "It doesn't start with a proposal to mine a fragile landscape."

Now Read: Global Mining Industry Faces ‘Trust Deficit’ Despite Being Asked To Produce More Metals For Energy Transition

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