“You want to be careful with all this because it’s all recorded.”
That’s what Ron Thiessen, the chief executive of Northern Dynasty Minerals, the parent company of Pebble Limited Partnership, told investigators posing as investors in one of several recordings released today that give an expansive look at what the backers of Pebble Mine don’t want the public to hear.
The tapes were released by Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental organization that specializes in undercover investigations, and cover everything from plans for the mine to expand and operate for 180 years or longer, a cozy relationship with the feds and a belief that skepticism from U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan is actually meaningless lip service that won’t hinder the project.
Thiessen was, of course, not talking about undercover investigators but instead detailing the efforts to lobby the White House by enlisting the help of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, stressing that by employing Dunleavy that it wouldn’t look like the project was directly lobbying the president.
“It’s better for us if we want to push that envelope that Tom (Collier, the Pebble Partnership CEO) talks to the Governor of the State of Alaska and the Governor of the State of Alaska picks up the phone and calls the Chief of Staff to the White House, yes. More government-to-government than necessarily ourselves, or lawyers talking to the lawyers in the White House,” he said. “The governor I count as a friend. I did in my home the largest private fundraiser for the governor when he was running for office and it’s not unusual for the governor to call me.”
Collier also bragged about an several-hour meeting they had with Dunleavy after the Trump administration appeared to be putting the brakes on the project amid pushback from Republican outdoorsmen who frequent the Bristol Bay region.
“We would not be able to respond positively to this letter we got today if the state weren’t there as our partner moving forward with this plan. And they are, OK? And just to put a fine, fine note on that, just between us guys, I had a two-hour one-on-one meeting with the governor when all of this came up about a month ago to walk him through this, to get his commitment that they would be there,” he said, “and now we’re working with his Department of Natural Resources and they’re been very cooperative in work this through with us.”
Though Dunleavy has ostensibly taken no public position on the mine, other investigations have shown Dunleavy was coached by Pebble Mine executives and that a Trump administration decision to roll back protections for Bristol Bay was put into motion the day after the governor met with Trump.
But Thiessen says a cultivated relationship with Ben Stevens, Dunleavy’s chief of staff, that is an even more critical alliance. Stevens was a member of the Pebble Advisory Committee, a group formed by the Pebble Limited Partnership as a show of taking input from Alaskans.
“Now in a lot of states, frankly, chief of staff is more important than the governor,” Thiessen says. “The governor has to be out there playing politics and kissing babies, where the chief of staff is sitting at his desk running the state government. And that’s a guy who was on the Pebble Advisory Committee.”
In one recording, Collier brags about holding the largest fundraiser for Dunleavy, fundraising for several other Republicans in the state and more recently for the defeat of several incumbent Republicans in the state primaries.
“We threw out nine people who had not been supporting the governor and had not been supporting Pebble,” he said. “It’s gonna make a dramatic change in the Alaska Legislature, and I was a leader in that effort.”
Though he criticized the ousted Republicans—which include folks like the very pro-mining Rep. Chuck Kopp—as working with Democrats, Collier admitted that if Joe Biden is elected that “I’m gonna brush of my Democratic credentials and start using them a little more actively than I do.”
As for Alaska’s U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, the executives characterized them as taking politically expedient skepticism to the mine while doing nothing material to actually stop it.
“Sen. Murkowski, she’s very political. She in her heart wants the project to go ahead. She will say things that appeal to sometimes people’s emotions but that won’t do any damage to the project overall. So, Sen. Murkowski we feel good about,” Thiessen said. “Murkowski isn’t up for election. When a Senator is not up for election, they don’t do anything.”
He said Murkowski and Sullivan are quietly working to satisfy both the public who oppose the mine and political donors who back the mine.
“It’s an age-old practice where you have constituents, you have important people who support you on two sides of an issue, alright, you try to find a way to satisfy them both,” he explained. “You don’t choose one or choose the other. You try to satisfy them both. The way that Sen. Murkowski has done that is when she’s asked a question she says things that don’t sound supportive of Pebble—but when it comes time to vote, when it comes time to do something, she never does anything to hurt Pebble, OK?”
He credits Murkowski for quietly killing a bill that had a rider that would have blocked funding for the mine, while publicly maintaining skepticism of the project.
“She threw a bone to those constituents that are against us in the committee report but when it really mattered, she didn’t do anything,” he said. “That’s the way Lisa Murkowski is, and frankly that’s the way a lot of senators and congressmen are in America. They say things that satisfy one side of an issue, but they don’t do anything that would hurt the other side of the issue. And that’s where Murkowski is.”
It’s a tactic that the mine has adopted, too. While their applications are all for a relatively limited mine for 20 years, they told the investigators that there’s enough minerals in the ground to support a mine for 160 years longer than the stated goal.
“Who’s gonna stop a mine that has 160,000 metric tons per day,” Thiessen said. “The first deposit that we’ve discovered at Pebble — and there will be more — but the first one lasts 180 years.”
As for Sullivan, the execs describe him as “not as prestigious” as Murkowski and say that they’re working on making sure “he doesn’t go and say something negative” about the project in an effort to get reelected. He says both are cowed because they responded to a report that the feds were putting the brakes on the project.
“He’s off in a corner being quiet,” Collier says of Sullivan. “So, I think that’s our plan to work with him—is leave him alone and let him be quiet.”
He also brags about how one of Sullivan’s top advisors rents an apartment from John Shively, the chairman of the Pebble Partnership’s board of directors, and has kept Shively up-to-date on Sullivan’s stance on the mine.
“She’s embarrassed that the senator got out there with the wrong message. But right now, John – who keeps informed with her, who keeps in touch with her – has been told that he’s just gonna be quiet,” he said. “He’s gonna try to ride out the election and remain quiet.”