Is Alaska's pebble mine the next Keystone XL?

The Pebble Mine has yet to be built because the process of getting state and federal permits for a project of this size is long, but also because it’s highly controversial. The mine pits two of Alaska’s biggest industries—fishing and mining, both of which are extractive, but only one of which is “sustainable”—against each other in a classic resource war: Weighing gold against salmon is weighing money against nature.

According to one school of thought, it’s a calculation that ought to be left to Alaskans. The Pebble Partnership promises to create jobs and bring in revenue, and the state residents—who will feel the effects either way—should know best whether this would do more long-term good than the protection of salmon stocks and preservation of pristine land. And polls have shown that the majority of Alaskans oppose the mine. An estimated 10 million tons of toxic mineral waste would be dredged up at the site; even a tiny proportion of this waste, if leaked into surrounding waters, would chemically alter salmon habitat and threaten the health of the fishery.

The oft-cited statistic is that “80 percent of Bristol Bay residents” are against it—a number based on data collected between 2007 and 2009, when the Pebble Mine controversy was most fevered. Two independent filmmakers brought attention to the issue with their documentary Red Gold in 2007. The state’s most famous politician played both sides of the issue. While campaigning for governor in 2006, Sarah Palin said, “I am a commercial fisherman; my daughter’s name is Bristol,” and “I could not support a project that risks one resource that we know is a given, and that is the world’s richest spawning grounds, over another resource.” But two years later, she said she opposed a state ballot measure to restrict the discharge of toxic waste from new mining operations, which might have stopped the Pebble project from developing further. Some Alaskans took this as a betrayal of her promise to protect Alaska’s fisheries. The measure was defeated.