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By Stephen Lee
Add the financially troubled Pebble Mine to the list of free-marketeers now criticizing EPA chief Scott Pruitt.
But unlike recent criticism from conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, Pebble’s complaints are with Pruitt’s policy moves, not his personal conduct.
The timing of Pebble’s criticisms is also curious, given that the decision they say throws roadblocks in the Alaska mine’s way was made four and a half months ago. And the company has said almost nothing publicly about it until now.
Pebble’s financial lifeline, First Quantum Minerals Ltd., walked away from the planned copper and gold mine three weeks ago. That broken deal has left Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the mine’s parent company, in immediate need of a new backer—and possibly anxious to show potential investors that the Environmental Protection Agency still has the mine’s back.
On a June 14 conference call with reporters, Tom Collier, chief executive officer of the Pebble Partnership, said Pruitt had overstepped his authority in January when he left in place proposed Obama-era Clean Water Act restrictions to the mine.
That action has set Pruitt markedly out of step with the broader Trump deregulatory agenda, Collier said.
Pruitt has set a dangerous precedent by taking action before Pebble has even applied for a permit, he added.
Future EPA chiefs, or even regional administrators, may follow Pruitt’s lead and preemptively turn any state or private land “into a national park,” taking it off the table for development, Collier said.
“I’m riled up about the precedent, but what drives me even more crazy is why this administration, which talks about federal overreach, would in January recognize the use of a preemptive veto,” Collier said during a conference call hosted by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. “That’s what Scott Pruitt did.”
The EPA didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Environment’s interview request.
Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, echoed Collier’s remarks during the same conference call.
“You could say one of the reasons President Trump was elected president was because he said he was going to shrink EPA back down to its legal authority,” Ebell, the director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, said. “Scott Pruitt is part of that team, and he’s spoken very strongly in favor of that. And yet this one thing is sticking out like a sore thumb.”
Bob Perciasepe, Obama’s former EPA deputy administrator, said during the call that he didn’t see anything in the Clean Water Act that would prohibit Pruitt’s decision.
Ebell conceded that Pruitt’s actions may have been legal, but “that doesn’t mean they’re not outrageous.”
Neither Collier nor Ebell offered any guesses as to what motivated Pruitt’s January about-face.
“There are mysteries in federal agencies,” Ebell said. “Things that are really hard to explain.”
The debate over the Pruitt decision is largely overblown, Joel Reynolds, Western director and a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.
Pebble was given four years to apply for a Clean Water Act permit under a May 2017 settlement with the EPA. During that time, the agency agreed not to impose restrictions under section 404(c) of the statute, which addresses the dumping of dredged or fill material.
Pruitt’s January decision only walks back a regulatory proposal to entirely suspend or withdraw from the 404(c) oversight process, meaning that, after the four-year settlement expires, the EPA will have the option to again impose Clean Water Act restrictions, according to Reynolds. Pruitt’s decision doesn’t reinstate limitations placed on the mine by the Obama-era EPA in 2014, Reynolds said.
To Reynolds, the critiques of Pruitt may be part of a bid to soothe investors who may be interested in buying into Pebble.
“The expectation in the marketplace was that Pruitt would do the bidding for the Pebble Mine,” Reynolds told Bloomberg Environment. “Specifically what that means is that EPA would take itself out of the picture.”
Northern Dynasty had been trying for months to hammer out a $150 million deal with First Quantum to fund the permitting process until the deal blew up last month.
First Quantum hasn’t responded to requests from Bloomberg Environment to explain why it walked away.
Collier said on the conference call that he was under some constraints to discuss financing.
However, “we remain confident that we’ll be able to have financing to move it through permitting,” he said.
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