In Alaska, a path to metals needed for clean energy could also cause damage | ET REALITY


A proposed 211-mile industrial highway that would cut through pristine Alaska wilderness to reach a planned copper and zinc mine would disrupt the way of life of Alaska Native communities, harm fish and caribou, and likely accelerate snowmelt. permafrost, according to an environmental report. review released by the Biden administration on Friday.

The highway, known as the Ambler Access Project, would pass through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and requires a federal permit to move forward. The question of whether to approve it pits President Biden’s clean energy agenda, with its need for copper and other metals needed for wind turbines, solar panels and other clean energy technologies, against his promise to protect tundra and pristine tribal lands.

The Trump administration had issued a permit for the highway project in July 2020 despite objections from some Alaska Native groups, but Biden suspended it, saying the environmental impact had not been adequately studied.

The Interior Department on Friday released its new draft analysis examining the impacts of three potential routes for the proposed highway, as well as a “no action” alternative if the highway is not built. Of the four possible options, he indicated no preference. The administration will accept public comments on the draft analysis for 60 days before issuing a final environmental impact statement. A decision on the permit is expected next year.

Conservation groups and many Alaska Native tribes want the Biden administration to stop the project. They maintain that the highway, which could cut through the foothills of the majestic Gates of the Arctic Park, would alter caribou migration patterns, contaminate salmon spawning grounds and make it difficult for native communities to hunt caribou, which is fundamental to their style of life. subsistence life.

“The caribou are fighting, the fish are fighting,” said Julie Roberts-Hyslop, the first chief of the Tanana tribe, originally from the village of Tanana on the Yukon River. “This will open up areas where species are already struggling to survive.”

The analysis also found that any of the road alternatives “may significantly restrict subsistence uses” for at least half of the nearby Alaska Native communities. It presents a much more dire assessment than a study conducted during the Trump administration, which largely discounted the impacts the highway would have on fish, caribou and native tribes.

But mining companies and some renewable energy supporters warn that blocking access to the region’s deposits of copper, zinc, cobalt and other metals could have serious consequences for clean energy.

According to the International Energy Administration, there are currently not enough minerals available for countries to quickly transition from coal, oil and gas to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy. It is expected that in the next decade global demand for copper alone will skyrocket. as much as 270 percentsignificantly exceeding supply by 2050.

The Inflation Reduction Act, a law Biden signed last year that invests $370 billion in clean energy, requires the government to develop a domestic supply chain for critical minerals, most of which are now available. processed in China.

The administration relies on the rapid rise of renewable energy and electric vehicles to reach its goal of cutting the country’s planet-warming emissions by about half by the end of this decade.

The Ambler mining district, located in northwest Alaska, has the potential to produce approximately 159 million pounds of copper over a 12-year mine life, as well as 199 million pounds of zinc, 33 million pounds of lead, 3 .3 million ounces of silver and 30,600 ounces of gold, according to a 2018 feasibility study.

Environmentalists argue that projected mineral yields are unproven and overly optimistic, and say larger reserves exist in parts of the country that are less ecologically sensitive.

And they say the industrial road needed to connect to the proposed mine is an environmental threat in itself, as it would allow trucks and heavy equipment to rumble across 11 major rivers and nearly 3,000 streams in the Brooks Range.

The route for the Alaska Development Corporation’s proposed two-lane all-season gravel road would run from the Dalton Highway, through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to the planned mine and is the least expensive of the three routes under study. .

The Interior Department found that the highway would disturb about 4,000 acres of caribou habitat, disrupt seven communities whose members rely on subsistence hunting and fishing, and possibly accelerate permafrost thaw.

“Ice-rich soils in the proposed corridors would warm and potentially thaw with or without construction,” the review found. “However, with construction, soils in the specific area of ​​the site are expected to experience amplified or accelerated snowmelt.”

The expected greenhouse gas emissions from transporting ore from the mine once the road is built are estimated at 51,972 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, approximately the equivalent of 11,500 cars on the road annually.

Ricko DeWilde, 48, a subsistence hunter and trapper from Huslia, a town near the proposed highway, said he worries that inviting people unfamiliar with the region would disrupt an Arctic ecosystem teeming with caribou, bears, moose and Dall. sheep, birds, salmon and other fish.

“Our culture is tied to our food,” DeWilde said. “When you have a group of people who think they deserve to have that campfire story about their big hunt in Alaska, they’re basically eliminating a culture by eliminating a food source.”

Alaska leaders maintain that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 guaranteed a right-of-way across federal lands for the proposed Ambler Road. Highway supporters said they believe that means the Biden administration would ultimately be forced to approve the project but could impose costly conditions.

The highway project has the support of Alaska’s two U.S. senators and its only member of Congress. Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, accused the Biden administration of impeding progress. “This is classic Biden administration: undermining American strengths in a very dangerous time, subverting the clear intent of federal law, and lying to Alaska,” he said in a statement.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority Board, the state’s development bank, initially requested federal permits to build the highway in 2015 and has already approved about $44.8 million for the project. He argued that it is estimated that the mining district will create more than 3,900 direct and indirect jobs, and more than 300 million dollars in annual salaries, adding new income to state and local coffers.

Ramzi Fawaz, chief executive of Ambler Metals, a joint venture of two companies that want to exploit the site and others nearby, said in a statement that the company is “confident” it can address any issues raised in the new analysis.

“The Ambler Access Project was authorized by federal law more than 40 years ago and has support throughout Alaska and within the region,” said Mr. Fawaz.

“This project is urgent as it provides access to critical mineral deposits throughout the region. “Mining is critical to America’s national security, to meeting decarbonization goals, the implementation of existing climate laws, and to building a stronger economy in rural Alaska,” he said.

But John Gaedeke, 48, who runs a wilderness lodge in the Brooks Range that his parents built in 1974, said an industrial highway and mining operations don’t belong in one of the most remote places on Earth.

“The idea that we are going to save the planet or improve the environment by destroying it?” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

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