A direct line to the White House, but routed through a third party to hide it from public view. Easy access to Alaska’s governor, as well as the state’s two U.S. senators. A successful push to unseat nine Republican state lawmakers who opposed their plan to build a massive gold and copper mine — the biggest in North America — near Bristol Bay in Alaska.
Those were some of the boasts made by two top executives of a company trying to build the Pebble Mine in videotapes secretly recorded by an environmental group and made public Monday. It was a rare glimpse into the private discussions surrounding the company’s heated campaign to win federal permits for the project, which environmentalists say will destroy a pristine part of Alaska and decimate its world-famous sockeye salmon fishery.
The conversations were secretly recorded over the past month and a half by the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency. Posing as potential investors in the mine, EIA investigators conducted Zoom calls in which the mine’s sponsors detailed how they sought to curry favor with elected politicians from Juneau to Washington, D.C.
The tapes feature separate conversations with two key men behind the project — Roland Thiessen, chief executive of the Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, and Tom Collier, chief executive of its U.S. subsidiary, Pebble Limited Partnership.
Within a matter of weeks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could grant a permit for the mine. While the agency found in late July that the project would have “no measurable effect” on the area’s fish populations, last month it informed Pebble Limited Partnership that it had to do more to show how it would offset the damage caused by the operation.
But even as the executives jump through several regulatory hoops, they are focused on wooing Republican politicians. In the taped conversations, they detailed their plan to manage all the decision-makers.
Thiessen described both of the state’s Republican U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as politicians who might make noises about the project to appear sensitive to environmental concerns but ultimately won’t stand in their way. “It’s an age-old practice where when you have constituents, you have important people who support you on two sides of an issue, all right, you try to find a way to satisfy them both,” he said in the recording.
He noted that Murkowski declined to move a bill that would have barred the federal government from permitting the mine. Instead, she included language in a spending bill that raised some questions about Pebble Mine but did not hinder it. “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, okay?” Thiessen said.
At a different point in the tapes, Collier said both senators misinterpreted the letter the Corps sent last month and are now embarrassed. “So right now, they’re just sort of sitting over in a corner and being quiet, okay?”
The senior senator from Alaska was not amused.
“Let me be clear: I did not misunderstand the Army Corps’ recent announcement,” she said in a statement. “I am not ‘embarrassed’ by my statement on it, and I will not be ‘quiet in the corner.’ I am dead set on a high bar for large-scale resource development in the Bristol Bay watershed. The reality of this situation is the Pebble project has not met that bar and a permit cannot be issued to it.”
Neither was Sullivan. “Any suggestion otherwise is either wishful thinking, a blatant mischaracterization, or a desperate attempt to secure funding for a mine that cannot move forward,” he said. “This incident demonstrates how far Mr. Collier, who has serious credibility problems of his own, is floundering in the face of this project’s overwhelming challenges.”
An unusual coalition of Alaska Natives, conservationists and some famous anglers who enjoy fishing in Bristol Bay — including the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., the vice president’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayers, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson — have opposed the plan out of concern that waste from the operation could pollute the waters of southwest Alaska.
Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp., assailed the companies in a phone interview and accused them of hypocrisy.
“They’ll tell anyone what they want to hear based on whatever they think will move the needle for the Pebble Limited Partnership,” he said. “Now I think the public, at least those who have seen the tapes, they’re seeing behind the curtain now.”
In a statement Monday evening, Collier said he had not had time to review the tapes but that “there are some pretty questionable ethics at play” given that the individuals making the recordings disguised their identities.
A spokesman for Collier said he “regrets the way he conveyed their influence and importance” of the two senators.
Both Collier and Thiessen detail in the recordings how they have raised money for Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R).
Collier, who worked as chief of staff to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt during the Clinton administration, said that he registered as an independent in Alaska but was “a well-known Republican fundraiser” in the state. He describes how he helped lead a successful effort to defeat nine state GOP legislators last election because they worked with Democrats and did not support Pebble Mine.
“Now, having said that, it’s entirely possible that we may have [former vice president Joe] Biden as a president, and if we do, I’m gonna brush off my Democratic credentials and start using them a little more actively than I do,” he added.
Collier will get a roughly $4 million bonus if the mine receives a favorable Record of Decision from the Corps and another $8.4 million if the permit can withstand a legal challenge.
Thiessen, for his part, explained to EIA investigators how he and his colleagues have ready access to Trump’s chief of staff but use Dunleavy’s office as a conduit.
“I mean, we can talk to the chief of staff of the White House any time we want. You want to be careful with all this because it’s all recorded,” Thiessen said. “It’s not that they tape the call, it’s just that it’s recorded that ‘He had a call with Tom Collier, the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership.’ You don’t want to be seen to be trying to exercise undue influence. It’s better for us if we want to push that envelope that Tom 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.”
Asked about the secret recordings, Dunleavy’s office said: “The statements made in the videos by representatives from Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Limited Partnership, as assembled by an environmental group, misrepresent the Dunleavy administration’s role and stance on the Pebble Project. The individuals in those videos embellished their relationships with state and federal officials at all levels. Any claims that Governor Dunleavy contacted White House administration officials on behalf of that company are false.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Other parts of the recordings are more substantive than political. The company is seeking a permit for a 20-year operation, but Thiessen outlined in the recordings how it could last for another 160 years and eventually double its output. “Once you have something like this in production why would you want to stop?”
Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, said in a phone interview that the mine’s sponsors had deliberately downplayed the project’s impact.
“Seeing that the private opinion of that company that their massive plans will be unstoppable once the first artificially sized permit is passed, that is critical information for the public to know before the final decision is made,” said von Bismarck, whose D.C.-based group is funded by such foundations as the ClimateWorks and Shared Earth Foundation. “Because it clearly may have permanent impacts on an almost priceless resource for Alaska.”
Collier did not dispute the idea that the company could expand the mine, though he said it has no immediate plans to do so and would have to apply for additional permits if it did. “I can tell you what we’ve seen reported in these tapes thus far is not inconsistent with the position that Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Partnership have taken for the past several years,” he said.
But at least one Senate Democrat, Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), said in an interview that the tapes raise questions about whether Pebble Mine officials misled Congress.
“If what appears to be the case — that they painted one picture in congressional testimony and a completely different picture to investors — then it really calls into question whether they were lying to Congress or not, which is a crime,” Heinrich said, adding it could also provide fodder for a lawsuit if the Corps approves the operation. “It potentially calls into question the legitimacy of the permit.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Environmental Investigation Agency received donations from the Wildlife Conservation Network and American Endowment Foundation.
Desmond Butler contributed to this report.