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Trump Administration Better on Permit Approvals for Energy Projects than for Minerals Projects Like the Pebble Mine

The Trump administration is doing a good job reducing red tape and streamlining the permitting process for energy production and energy infrastructure projects, including key Executive Orders and proposed rule changes, most notably the recent proposal to fix many of the problems with the National Environmental Policy Act. But on minerals mining, the record is decidedly mixed, with some measures helping undo decades of anti-mining policy but others maintaining existing roadblocks. Perhaps most problematic of all is the Trump administration’s defense of Obama-era efforts to stop the Pebble Mine in Alaska, most recently by rejecting the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s challenge to the Obama EPA analysis used by mine opponents.

The Pebble Mine has the potential to be America’s largest new mine in decades, producing copper, molybdenum, and gold, as well as a providing much-needed supply of critical rare earths. It would also create thousands of jobs in a part of Alaska that needs them. The federal permitting process is underway, led by the Army Corps of Engineers. But hanging like a cloud over this process is the EPA’s 2014 Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA), a report that painted the mine as a dire environmental risk to the Bristol Bay watershed and salmon fishery.

In addition to the BBWA being largely written by people whose anti-mine bias was a matter of public record and that the process of compiling it had many irregularities, the report suffered from a fatal flaw—it was written before the mining company, Northern Dynasty, had even filed a permit application with the government. In the absence of an actual plan to review, the EPA simply hypothesized a nightmare of a mine scenario, and issued a proposed determination to block the mine based upon its analysis.

In November of 2018, CEI filed a Request for Correction of the BBWA as well as the EPA’s proposed determination based upon it, pursuant to the Information Quality Act. In this petition, CEI sketched out the reasons why the BBWA failed to meet the data quality requirements of the law.

To its credit, the EPA withdrew its proposed determination last July, but the BBWA itself was not withdrawn and continues to be cited in the ongoing Army Corps review by mine opponents, including submissions from the Department of the Interior. Based on the withdrawal of the proposed determination, the EPA declared CEI’s Request for Correction moot in August 2019. CEI disagreed and submitted a Request for Reconsideration based on the fact that the flawed BBWA is still the agency’s position on the mine and is still being cited in the mine approval process.

In a January 15, 2020 letter—more than a year after the original petition—the EPA rejected CEI’s Request for Reconsideration. It did so by repeating the findings of a 2016 Obama EPA Inspector General report that purportedly found no serious problems with the BBWA, despite a lack of cooperation among key BBWA contributors. Oddly, this report had not been previously mentioned by the EPA in its lengthy correspondence with CEI and played no part in the agency’s decision to reject the initial Petition for Correction.

In sum, the Trump EPA is relying on a junk review of a junk study, both from the Obama administration, that may derail America’s most promising new mine and set a bad precedent for future mining projects.