A proposed 211-mile industrial road that would cut through pristine Alaskan wilderness to reach a planned copper and zinc mine would disrupt the way of life in Native Alaska communities, harm fish and caribou, and likely speed the thawing of permafrost, according to an environmental review released by the Biden administration on Friday.
The road, known as the Ambler Access Project, would cut through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and requires a federal permit to move forward. The question about whether to approve it pits President Biden’s clean energy agenda, with its need for copper and other metals necessary for wind turbines, solar panels and other clean energy technology, against his pledge to protect untouched tundra and tribal lands.
The Trump administration had issued a permit for the road project in July 2020 over the objections of some Alaska Native groups but Mr. Biden suspended it, saying the environmental impact had not been adequately studied.
The Interior Department released its new draft analysis on Friday that examined the impacts from three potential routes for the proposed road, as well as a “no action” alternative in the event that the road is not built. Of the four possible choices, it did not indicate a 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 the road, which could cut through the foothills of the majestic Gates of the Arctic park, would disrupt caribou migration patterns, pollute spawning grounds for salmon and make it difficult for Native communities to hunt the caribou that are central to their subsistence lifestyle.
“The caribou is struggling, the fish are struggling,” said Julie Roberts-Hyslop, the first chief of the Tanana Tribe who is from the village of Tanana on the Yukon River. “This is going to 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 Native Alaska communities. It paints a far more dire assessment than a study done under the Trump administration, which largely dismissed the impacts the road would have on fish, caribou and Native tribes.
But mining companies and some renewable energy supporters warn that blocking the 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 to quickly transition nations from coal, oil and gas to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy. Over the coming decade, global demand for copper alone is projected to soar as much as 270 percent, significantly outpacing supply by 2050.
The Inflation Reduction Act, a law Mr. Biden signed last year that invests $370 billion in clean energy, requires the government to develop a domestic supply chain for critical minerals, the bulk of which are now processed in China.
The administration is depending on rapidly increasing renewable energy and electric vehicles to reach its goal of cutting the country’s planet-warming emissions roughly in half by the end of this decade.
The Ambler mining district, located in northwest Alaska, holds the potential to yield approximately 159 million pounds of copper over a 12-year life span, 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 the predicted mineral yields are unproven and overly optimistic, and say that larger reserves exist in parts of the country that are less ecologically sensitive.
And they say the industrial road that is necessary to connect to the proposed mine is an environmental threat itself, as it would allow heavy trucks and equipment to rumble across 11 major rivers and nearly 3,000 streams in the Brooks Range.
The route for the two-lane, all-season gravel road proposed by Alaska’s development corporation would run from the Dalton Highway, through the 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 road would disturb about 4,000 acres of caribou habitat, disrupt seven communities whose members depend on subsistence hunting and fishing, and possibly speed the thawing of permafrost.
“The ice-rich soils in the proposed corridors would warm and potentially thaw with or without construction,” the review found. “However, with construction, the site-specific area soils are anticipated to experience amplified or accelerated thawing.”
The greenhouse gas emissions expected from trucking ore from the mine once a road is built are estimated to be 51,972 tons of carbon dioxide a year — about the equivalent of 11,500 cars on the road annually.
Ricko DeWilde, 48, a subsistence hunter and trapper from Huslia, a city close to the proposed road, said he worries that it would invite people unfamiliar with the region who would disturb an Arctic ecosystem that is teeming with caribou, bears, moose, Dall sheep, birds, and salmon and other fish.
“Our culture is tied to our food,” Mr. DeWilde said. “When you have a bunch of people who think they deserve to have that campfire story about their great hunt in Alaska, well they are basically eliminating a culture by eliminating a food source.”
Alaska leaders argue the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 guaranteed a right of way across federal lands for the proposed Ambler Road. Supporters of the road said they believe that means the Biden administration would ultimately be forced to approve the project but may impose costly conditions.
The road project has the backing of Alaska’s two U.S. senators and its sole member of Congress. Senator 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 filed for federal permits to build the road in 2015 and has already approved about $44.8 million toward the project. It argued the mining district is estimated to create more than 3,900 direct and indirect jobs, and more than $300 million in annual wages, adding new revenues to state and local coffers.
Ramzi Fawaz, the chief executive officer of Ambler Metals, a joint venture of two companies that want to mine 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 in federal law over 40 years ago and has support across Alaska and within the region,” Mr. Fawaz said.
“This project is urgent, as it provides access to critical mineral deposits across the region. Mining is critical for U.S. national security, reaching decarbonization targets, implementation of existing climate laws, and to build 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 that an industrial road and mining operations don’t belong in one of the most remote places on Earth.
“The idea that we’re going to save the planet or better the environment by destroying the environment?” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”