Company behind contested Alaska mine project pays $1M to hire Washington lobbyists

Workers with the Pebble Mine project test drill in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, near the village of Iliamma, in July 2007. (Al Grillo/AP)
The U.S. House will hold a hearing on the Pebble Mine, in Southwest Alaska, on Wednesday. Members of Congress should be familiar with the proposal, because Pebble Limited Partnership has spent a fortune to hire some of Washington’s most influential insiders as lobbyists.

Consider the last congressional hearing on Pebble, in 2016. It was chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who made it clear he thought the proposed Alaska mine was getting a raw deal. It was obvious in the title of his hearing: “Examining EPA’s pre-determined efforts to block the Pebble Mine.”

Today, Lamar Smith is a lobbyist at Akin Gump. The K-Street firm reports he is one of nine lobbyists it has working on the Pebble project. Politico just listed Akin Gump as the top-grossing lobbying firm for the third quarter of 2019. Pebble also retained Nos. 5 and 7 on Politico’s list of top firms. In all, Pebble has spent more than $1 million on federal lobbying so far this year and is on track to eclipse its 2018 lobbying total.

(In public disclosure forms, Pebble’s total comes to more than $2 million so far this year. Pebble said it reports its lobbying contracts as in-house lobbying expenditures, and then the firms also report the contract amounts, making the total expenditures appear nearly twice as large as they are.)

Nothing wrong with lobbying, company says
The US Capitol Building is seen at dusk in Washington, DC, February 6, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the company has a lot of policymakers it needs to keep up to date on its permit application for a gold mine in southwest Alaska.

“There’s a massive amount of misinformation out there that we have to counter,” he said.

Heatwole said there’s nothing suspicious about former Congressman Smith now lobbying on behalf of Pebble, and says Pebble did not specifically seek him out.

“He’s affiliated with a firm that we believe helps us with our lobbying footprint and do good work on our behalf,” Heatwole said.

Ex-House members can’t lobby their former colleagues for a year after leaving office, but they can advise, and they can lobby federal agencies.

Strong opposition
Ralph Andersen, president of the Bristol Bay Native Association, at podium, makes a statement along several representatives from Bristol Bay organizations outside the Federal Courthouse in Anchorage, Alaska, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in hopes of restoring its 2014 proposed determination that could have halted the Pebble mining project. The EPA in July removed the 2014 proposal. Critics of a mine planned near headwaters of a major Alaska salmon fishery are suing the EPA, saying EPA improperly withdrew proposed restrictions on development in that region. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

Bristol Bay Native Corporation is among the groups fighting the Pebble Mine. Opponents say the project threatens spawning streams and Bristol Bay’s valuable salmon runs. BBNC Vice President Daniel Cheyette says he’s not surprised Pebble has retained Smith, or that the company is spending big on lobbying.

“They don’t have science on their side. They don’t have public opinion on their side. So what are they left with? They’re left with politics,” Cheyette said. “And they are pulling out all the stops to try to make that work.”

The Native corporation is also lobbying Congress to oppose Pebble. It reports spending $180,000 on lobbying contracts so far this year. That’s far less than Pebble, but BBNC is not alone. Several national environmental groups are also lobbying against the mine.

People gathered outside U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office in Juneau, Alaska, to protest the proposed Pebble Mine on June 25, 2019. (Becky Bohrer/AP Photo)

And BBNC’s lobbyists now include Kevin Sweeney. He’s a well-connected insider, especially in the Alaska context. Sweeney was a top aide and campaign manager for Sen. Lisa Murkowski. He’s also married to Assistant Interior Secretary Tara Sweeney. Cheyette makes no apologies and said Kevin Sweeney is effective at explaining that BBNC’s objections are specific to Pebble, not a general opposition to development.

“We hired him based on his track record on projects on issues and with our congressional delegation,” Cheyette said.

He noted that Tara Sweeney’s area of the Interior Department is Indian Affairs, not one of the agencies that works on Pebble.

“It’s a coincidence. Nothing more,” Cheyette said.

Heatwole, the Pebble spokesman, said he has no beef with mine opponents hiring Sweeney, or other lobbyists. He says both sides are working on their Washington outreach.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Moody’s downgrades rating on $550M bond owed by Northern Canada mines owner, CBC News

Finland: Mining companies to pay higher deposits for environmental damage in Finland, Yle News

Greenland: Greenland issues new exploration, prospecting licences to Anglo American, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Minister downplays environmental impact of planned mine in Arctic Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Moscow supports Vostok Coal’s expansion into protected Arctic tundra, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Iron mine in northern Sweden to restart production, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaska governor sends letter encouraging potential Pebble mine investor, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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