Last month, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released preliminary environmental documents that cast doubts on the future of the Ambler Road, an infrastructure project aimed at unlocking the mineral-rich Ambler Mining District in northwest Alaska. The Interior Department did not single out what route it prefers, which suggests it will not allow construction of the road after public comments end on December 22.
Dragging out permits for environmental reasons only limits Alaska’s economic progress. Policy uncertainties at the federal level have ultimately hurt the state’s capacity to attract investment and further hamstrung the opportunities available to residents. The Biden administration must realize that developing Alaska’s natural resources is not in conflict with caring for its environment.
The Ambler Road is a proposed 211-mile-long private-access road in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough. The most promising prospective mine in the area is expected to produce 149 million pounds of copper, 173 million pounds of zinc, and 26 million pounds of lead annually. An analysis by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development estimated the project would add an average of 360 jobs each year related to road construction. Developing four mines in the area would lead to almost 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, and continued mining operations would lead to almost 500 direct jobs. The same study estimates the state of Alaska would receive $1.1 billion, and local governments would receive $193 million.
Federal law has promised to permit access to the Ambler Mining District. Under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, “there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes . . . and the [Interior] Secretary shall permit such access.” The state of Alaska submitted its initial proposals in 2015 after some false starts — 35 years after the Carter administration made that promise. The first round of environmental review spanned from 2016 to 2019, and in mid 2020, the Trump administration approved the road and granted a 50-year right of way. However, the Biden administration effectively restarted the process in 2022 when it suspended the permits, and the Interior Department voluntarily asked to redo its review.
But the science done by federal agencies — and the opinion of local communities — haven’t changed much since the Trump administration approved the road. The Biden administration’s BLM found more communities that would be impacted than the Trump administration did, but that’s to be expected since it considered two and a half times the number of communities.
Though support is hardly unanimous, tribal leaders recognize the benefits that the Ambler Road could provide to their communities. The late mayor and first chief of Hughes, a community along the route, recognized its potential to “reduce the high cost of living,” and acknowledged that “high-paying jobs” are necessary so that “our tribal members and their families can remain in their communities.” Several communities withdrew from litigation earlier this year.
Denying approval to the Ambler Road puts Biden in an uncomfortable environmental quandary, too. If he wishes to produce the critical minerals necessary for electric vehicles, solar panels, and batteries, he will need domestic resources such as those found in the Ambler Mining District.
Representative Mary Peltola (D., Alaska) put it well: “Projects in the Ambler mining district could create good-paying jobs for local communities while also developing an Alaska-based supply chain for the critical minerals our country needs to compete with China and create a cleaner energy grid.” How does Biden expect companies to meet the Inflation Reduction Act’s U.S.-made mandates for green-energy technologies without domestic mines?
Flip-flopping on projects (that are already subject to lengthy permitting processes) harms investment in Alaska’s natural resources and Alaskans. The federal government’s hostility to natural-resource development in Alaska has led the state to try to compensate: Governor Dunleavy is proposing to reduce royalty rates for new Cook Inlet natural-gas developments. But Alaska can only do so much when the federal government stymies projects at every turn.
Federal rumblings that the private efforts of companies will be expropriated for public ends won’t encourage investment in new projects, either. The BLM report hints that “after the useful commercial life of Ambler Road,” it might become public, which is contrary to the private industrial road intended in the application and supported by many communities. A quick way to multiply the potential environmental and subsistence impacts of the road is to suggest an unknown and unforeseen degree of public traffic and easy access to outside hunters.
Opinions on the environmental harms of the Ambler Road vary widely, and the debate cannot be settled in 800 words. However, Alaska has shown that caring for the environment and developing its natural resources are not mutually exclusive. It shouldn’t take a decade to figure that out — for the Ambler Road, or for any other project.