Mining company coached Alaska’s governor to lobby White House

Mining company coached Alaska’s governor to lobby White House
Copyright 2019 CNN

A mining company secretly collaborated with the governor of Alaska to lobby the Trump administration to move forward with a mining project that Environmental Protection Agency scientists warned could devastate the world’s most valuable wild salmon habitat, according to newly released emails obtained by CNN.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office was given detailed talking points, ghostwritten letters and advice on lobbying strategies by Pebble Limited Partnership executives, emails show. Dunleavy and his office then used that material, sometimes adopting the company’s language word for word, in an effort that culminated in President Donald Trump promising favorable action on the mine, according to emails.

One striking example of the governor using Pebble’s language is an official letter Dunleavy sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April about the length of a public comment period on the mine’s draft environment impact statement.

The emails show that Dunleavy’s letter was a verbatim copy of a draft sent to his aide by Pebble’s chief of staff, except for a few phrases.

Pebble has sought for more than a decade to develop a gold-and-copper mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska, home to the largest run of wild sockeye salmon. The Obama-administration’s EPA blocked the mine over concerns that the project would devastate the bay’s fish habitat.

Despite the proposed mine’s history of sparking protests and dividing public opinion in Alaska, Pebble found an ally in Dunleavy, a Republican who took office in December 2018 and made the phrase “Alaska is open for business” his motto. Dunleavy has since called for the Trump administration to lift the “preemptive veto” that blocked the mine, according to the documents.

Dunleavy met with Trump during an Air Force One stopover in Alaska on June 26, the same day that the EPA publicly announced plans to consider withdrawing the ban on the mine.

While the EPA’s announcement that day only said the agency would consider lifting the block, documents obtained from Dunleavy’s office through a public records request show that a Pebble staffer insisted “the Governor was promised” a favorable outcome by Trump.

CNN previously reported that the day after the Trump-Dunleavy meeting, EPA political appointees in Washington summoned top agency staffers into a hastily arranged video-conference meeting and informed them the EPA had already made the forthcoming decision to lift the Obama-era restriction on the mine.

EPA source: Dunleavy, Pebble ‘one and the same’

Though that EPA reversal does not guarantee the mine will be developed, two EPA insiders said the emails CNN obtained from Dunleavy’s office that show coordination with Pebble and an apparent promise from Trump raise questions about the integrity of the regulatory process applied to the mine.

“This shows the company and the governor’s office were essentially one and the same,” said one staffer, who called the communications “inappropriate.” “I haven’t seen that before,” another EPA staffer said, in reference to the extent to which the company sought to direct the governor’s office and Trump to support the mine. Both asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation.

Joel Reynolds, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, shared those concerns and said the documents suggest politics, rather than science, may have influenced decisions on the mine.

“These are the kinds of activities a company typically pays somebody on their staff to do, but in this case they’re working directly with the governor and his staff to accomplish the goals of the company,” said Reynolds, who represents one of many environmental groups suing to stop the mine.

Pebble’s CEO Tom Collier told CNN in his view, it’s “fairly normal” for companies to send state government officials draft letters that they edit and send, and he said environmental groups, not Pebble, interfered in the regulatory process by influencing EPA decision memos related to the mine during the Obama administration.

Although Dunleavy campaigned on an unabashedly pro-business platform, when he entered the governor’s office, Alaskan media outlets reported that he had declined to take a formal position on the Pebble mine.

“So the Pebble Mine project, just like any other natural resource development project, will be subject to an established permitting process,” he said in a statement reported last December. “The outcome of this process will determine if the project meets the standards set forth in law and regulation.”

But emails obtained by CNN show Dunleavy’s staff was corresponding with Pebble personnel even before he was elected, and continued to be in close communication after he took office.

What the documents show

In September 2018, Pebble’s chief of staff Shalon Harrington emailed Dunleavy’s campaign and thanked them for their “willingness to reach out to the VP’s office. We believe the connection between Vice President Pence and Mike really will make a difference.”

Harrington’s email included talking points that said the EPA decision to block the project “runs directly counter to President Trump’s proposal in his infrastructure initiative.” It’s unclear from the emails whether Dunleavy’s campaign used Pebble’s talking points in a conversation with Pence’s office.

Throughout the year, Pebble has sent Dunleavy’s office suggested language for use in promoting the project or opposing the EPA’s prior block of the mine, some of which was later used verbatim in statements by Dunleavy.

On February 21, Collier emailed a draft statement to Dunleavy’s office. Two days later, a Dunleavy staffer emailed Collier with a copy of “the Governor’s letter to be read at the mining event next week.”

That letter included some of the exact language from the Pebble draft, including statements such as, “My administration and commissioners are committed to responsibly developing Alaska’s resources for the benefit of Alaskans,” and, “If you want to work, I want to find an opportunity to make it happen.”

On July 29, Pebble’s Harrington emailed Dunleavy’s adviser Brett Huber with another “draft letter” that she wanted Dunleavy to send to a potential investor in the Pebble project.

“We truly believe that a letter from the Governor will make a huge difference,” Harrington wrote.

On July 30, Dunleavy sent a letter to the CEO of that company, Wheaton Precious Metals, in which he defended the Pebble Project and used language that largely reflected Pebble’s draft.

That letter — a copy of which was obtained by Alaska Public Media — prompted critics of the mine in Alaska to note that the letter appeared as if it came from Pebble officials. Documents obtained by CNN now show that appears to be the case.

“A fair, efficient and thorough permitting process, without interference and threats from project opponents, is essential to the future economic growth of Alaska. I am committed to making that happen,” Dunleavy wrote, echoing Pebble’s suggested language.

Wheaton Precious Metals did not invest in the project, a company spokesperson said.

When CNN asked for comment from both the governor’s office and Pebble officials, their responses were strikingly similar.

Dunleavy’s statement stated, “it is common practice for an administration to request briefing materials on a specific project.”

A statement from a Pebble company official said, “It is not unusual for interested parties to suggest language to elected officials that may be helpful in contesting poor public policy. What an administration chooses to do with the suggestion is entirely up to them.”

Both also emphasized the project should receive a fair analysis through regulatory agencies, and noted the governor’s support for the mining industry.

The White House and Pence did not comment for this story.

The relationship goes beyond emails

Dunleavy’s office also gave Pebble a heads-up on its communication with the White House about the mine. When Dunleavy wrote a letter to the White House in March that in part protested the use of a “preemptive veto” on the mine, Dunleavy’s adviser Huber wrote Pebble an email that said a colleague was “working to follow up on our asks the letter contains.”

The relationship between the governor’s office and the mining company has extended beyond emails.

Shortly after Dunleavy took office, Pebble invited Huber to a “party to celebrate the holidays” at the Anchorage home of Collier, according to an email. Huber confirmed he was attending the event, according to an online invitation viewed by CNN.

Harrington also thanked Huber for his attendance at another event at Collier’s home in July. An invitation described the event as a dinner for “Welcoming our guests from Wheaton Precious Metals,” the company that was considering an investment in Pebble.

The documents from Dunleavy’s office also show repeated communication between Pebble and the Governor’s office in the days and weeks surrounding the EPA’s announced decisions on the mine this past summer.

On June 19, Harrington had lunch with Huber. She followed up with an email that said, “I appreciate you taking time to hang with me. It was really nice catching up.”

The following week, on June 25, Harrington emailed Huber an undated, draft press release from the company that hailed what Pebble officials believed would be the EPA’s decision to formally remove the Obama-era block on the mine. That decision had not yet been publicly announced.

The very next day the EPA publicly announced that it was changing policy, but only considering withdrawing that block, not formally removing it as Pebble’s draft press release had stated.

Pebble’s Harrington emailed Huber that same day with talking points targeted at the White House that protested that the EPA had not outright lifted the restriction.

“Today’s EPA announcement says — literally — we may withdraw the preemptive veto, we may not,” the email from Pebble’s chief of staff reads, “Not only does it NOT withdraw the proposed veto, it sends the market a screaming message that EPA may still kill the project even if they get a permit from the Corps of Engineers. Pebble can’t raise the money it needs in this environment,” stated Harrington’s email, which requested Trump tweet his opposition to “preemptive vetoes.” Trump did not tweet on the matter.

The following day, on June 27, EPA officials were called to a meeting by political appointees from Washington and told a decision had been made to lift the restriction on the mine, and that it would be announced soon, CNN previously reported.

Before the EPA publicly announced that decision, an EPA regional administrator said on July 1 that a draft report on the mine’s environmental impact may underestimate its risks. In reaction, Harrington again emailed Huber and said the regional administrator’s letter “totally contradicts everything the Governor was promised last week by the President.”

Then, on July 30, the EPA formally announced its decision to withdraw the “proposed determination” that had previously blocked the mine, and Pebble published a press release that resembled the draft that had been prepared the month before.

“Finally, this Administration has reversed the outrageous federal government overreach inflicted on the State of Alaska by the Obama Administration,” Pebble’s Collier said in the press release.

In a detailed statement to CNN, Pebble said that it “did not have advance notice of any pending decision to remove the Obama-era Proposed Determination.”

However, based on conversations around Pebble Mine, “many felt a positive decision was forthcoming and we took internal steps to be prepared — including drafting a potential release and ensuring others who have been engaged on this issue were properly informed. This included a heads up to the governor’s office that we believed an announcement to remove the (proposed determination) was forthcoming. It is worth noting that our initial anticipation was wrong,” the statement said.

As to whether such close cooperation is appropriate or could threaten the integrity of the regulatory process, Pebble replied to CNN that the company “has not yet applied for state permits. As such there is no state regulatory process currently underway,” and added that “working with the governor and the EPA on the removal of the preemptive veto does not have an impact on the permitting review process currently underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

The EPA told CNN in a statement that the agency, “did not provide advanced notice to the applicant or its investors regarding either the timing or contents” of the decision on Pebble mine.

“The decision to withdraw the proposed determination does not approve the permit or prejudge a particular outcome in the permitting process,” the agency said.

Pebble’s parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, has faced additional scrutiny from an environmentalist group over whether it learned of the decision to lift the proposed determination in advance, and whether any non-public information was shared with investors.

Earthworks, a Washington-based advocacy group, sent a letter of complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission in October that called for an investigation into a series of Northern Dynasty stock trades and communication that occurred in the days surrounding the EPA’s announced decisions in June and July related to the mine.

Based on an increase in trades and online statements, the letter sought an inquiry into whether someone disclosed “non-public information to Northern Dynasty’s CEO.” A spokesman for Northern Dynasty denied any wrongdoing by company officials, saying they did not have advanced knowledge of the EPA’s decisions on Pebble Mine.

While the EPA lifted its prior restriction on Pebble, the proposed mine’s future remains uncertain. The project must clear permit-review processes and raise funding, though Pebble’s CEO Collier told CNN, “with the completion of the financing round that we are now in, we believe we’ve raised sufficient funds to get through the permitting process.”

Still, Pebble personnel have repeatedly thanked the Alaska governor’s office for helping the project get as far as it has.

“You and the Gov could not possibly have been more supportive of our project,” Pebble’s CEO Tom Collier wrote in an email to a Dunleavy adviser in July.

CNN’s Noah Broder, Audrey Ash and Collette Richards contributed to the story.