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A big test for Obama on the environment

It’s now common knowledge that, with one party in the grip of climate denialism, the best chance for serious action on climate change during Obama’s second term will be using the federal bureaucracy via executive action. The EPA in particular is the key agency in the struggle. It has broad powers under the Clean Air Act, buttressed by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, to regulate climate pollution. But such an action will require a bold, sustained effort from the whole of the administration.

Today, we’ll get a key test of the administration’s determination.

A gigantic mine is being planned for the Bristol Bay region in Alaska on huge deposits of gold, copper, and molybdenum, the poisonous byproducts of which could devastate the region’s environment and economy, and today the EPA released its assessment of the mine’s impact. The assessment is purely scientific; now the agency has to make a policy decision about whether to permit the mine.

The choice EPA makes will be a key indicator of the EPA’s willingness to endure the backlash that will certainly ensue if they take strong action on climate change.

It’s not clear how big an economic boon this project (called the Pebble Mine) would be to people in the surrounding communities. The Pebble deposit contains billions in minerals — though most of the wealth will go to the conglomerate planning the project; the mine would support only a few thousand jobs. Meanwhile, the Bristol Bay area already has a thriving economy centered around the sockeye salmon run. According to the report, the fishing industry supports over 14,000 jobs, and $480 million in direct expenditures. Naturally, the absentee mining developer insists any damage to the salmon habitat will be minimal, but the mine would be right on the headwaters of key rivers for the salmon run, and folks in West Virginia can tell you a thing or two about the impact of extractive industry and toxic waste spills.

However the short-term numbers work out, the long-term reality is that any mining inevitably exhausts the deposit. Right now the salmon business is sustainable indefinitely, if properly managed, and provides long-term economic security. As I’ve written before, the extractive industry might bring a short hit of wealth, but will run out eventually. That’s a big reason why native groups especially, which also rely on the salmon as a major part of their diet, have mobilized strongly against the mine.

In any case, economic arguments only go so far. Depending on the scenario, the EPA report estimates that the Pebble mine could create up to 11 billion metric tons of waste rock, and destroy up to 94 miles of streams, 4,900 acres of wetlands, and 450 acres of ponds and lakes. That’s more than enough to justify halting the mine either on economic or on the environmental grounds of protecting key salmon habitat. The question is whether the EPA will be willing to endure a political backlash from enraged corporate gazillionaires and their backers in Congress and the media.

Of course, President Obama has no direct control over the EPA. But he has many indirect methods at his disposal, as a close student of Johnson’s presidency could tell you. Perhaps the most important of these in this case is simple support, both public and private. Government agencies work well when they have a sense of mission and purpose to counterbalance the lack of market incentives and bureaucratic sluggishness. And the truth is that right now the EPA is quite possibly the most critically important organization in the entire world. EPA employees shouldn’t fear to defend the collective commons aggressively, confident that President Obama has their backs. The fate of this project will tell us how confident the EPA feels.