Emergency or just timely? Either way AIDEA uses COVID-19 meeting to advance Ambler Road

A map of the proposed routes for the Ambler Mine from the federal Bureau of Land Management.

After two days of near-unanimous public testimony opposing the move, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority board today unanimously approved the transfer of $35 million into a fund backing the controversial Ambler Mining District Road.

The board made the move during a hearing called, ostensibly, to respond to the COVID-19 emergency that included several items intended to ease borrowers’ burden during the economic downturn. Dozens of testifiers who opposed the Ambler Road excoriated the board for making the move during an emergency meeting that was plagued with phone problems that made it difficult for people to testify.

While several members couched the potential for a summer of field work on the road as a much-needed job creator, AIDEA CEO Tom Boutin—while praising Gov. Mike Dunleavy and President Donald Trump’s administration for advancing the project—acknowledged it wasn’t an emergency.

“This is just timely to be doing in anticipation of the upcoming field season,” he said.  “Absent this emergency meeting we would have nearly had it on our agenda for our regular April 15 board meeting. … This is just timely to be doing this now for the 2020 season and before any money is spent, we’ll certainly bring to you the plan.”

Board member Albert Fogle quickly jumped in to defend the project as a critical economic driver.

“I would argue with you Tom that this was put on the agenda specifically because of the COVID-19 response that the governor wants and that our board wants,” he said. “The economic development and to bring jobs into the state. By putting this money into the fund and leveraging the money, we’re going to be able to create 100 to 200 jobs immediately that would have otherwise gone to waste and would have been postponed to 2021.”

AIDEA Chief Infrastructure Development Officer Mark Davis told the board that following the release of the federal environmental impact statement on the road, he planned to take the money to South32, an Australian mining company with subsidiary Ambler Metals, on Monday to work on an agreement for a $15 million field work season this summer.

“We call Ambler Metals at 10 o’clock on Monday morning and say, ‘OK, the board set aside money, doesn’t say we can spend it, but set aside money. Here’s our proposed budget for 2020, here’s what we need to start,’” he said. “Can you come up with your 50 percent?”

He said the hope is to deploy aerial survey crews to do mapping of the route this summer, a task that he estimates would employ between 100 to 200 people for the season. He said that the spending, which would need to return to the board for approval, would go through the state’s procurement process in order to give a leg up to Alaska contractors in the bid selection process.

Board members seemed to dismiss the possibility that COVID-19 would interfere with such work. However, officials with South32 said this week that it has pulled back on some projects and exploration due to the pandemic.

(Added  at 9 p.m. to answer the question of “Where did that money come from?”) The money would come from AIDEA’s revolving loan fund. Opponents, including Anchorage Rep. Andy Josephson, raised concerns about the legality of the funding method, arguing that such an appropriation should go to the Legislature for approval (legislators are pushing to be done by Sunday). AIDEA officials disputed this argument, saying that state law gives AIDEA broad latitude over how it uses capital project money and it doesn’t require legislative approval.

Several opponents testified that the fact the Legislature hasn’t specifically approved money for the Ambler Road project that legislators oppose or are unwilling to support the project.

Several board members spoke optimistically about the project’s chance to provide, as board member Bernie Karl put it, a “tremendously good rate of return to the state.”

Davis said the estimates would be a $1 billion to $2 billion return to the state over about 30 years.

The estimate to build the road, as outlined in the federal EIS, is between $519.3 million and $999.2 million.

Backlash against the road has been fierce from communities along the route as well as from guides, lodge owners and environmental groups. One of the chief concerns about the 200-mile route connecting the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska is its potential to impact wildlife and fish populations that several Alaska Native subsistence communities rely on.

Several communities have passed resolutions opposing the route along with pledges to not sell or lease land for the road.

On Thursday, Doyon, Limited’s Senior Vice President of External Affair Sarah Obed called in to remind the agency that it might be a little premature to be scoping the road already.

“I wanted to remind the board that AIDEA has not entered into any kind of negotiations or requested any kind of permits from Doyon to cross Doyon lands,” she said. “All three of the routes that were considered cross some portion of Doyon land. I think it might be a little to spend money on the Ambler road without those negotiations taking place first.”

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