The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has delayed a key decision on a 211-mile access road to high-grade copper and cobalt deposits in the Ambler Mining District of Northwest Alaska.
Companies engaged in the exploration, Australia’s South32 and Vancouver, B.C.-based Trilogy Metals, learned of the decision in a court filing made May 19 by BLM in relation to lawsuits filed by conservation groups.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state development finance corporation, is planning the road construction and has a $26 million field program underway this summer, jointly funded by the companies, to assess cultural resource that may be affected by the road as well as hydrological studies at stream crossings.
South32 and Trilology, through the jointly owned Ambler Metals, the development company, are at an advanced stage of exploration and development planning at the Arctic deposit, one of several copper finds the Ambler district.
An additional exploration project is at Bornite, west of Arctic, where cobalt along with copper has been found. Both are strategic minerals needed for a transition to cleaner energy, particularly electric-powered, which is a priority for President Joe Biden.
In the latest report to the court, the Department indicated the release of a new Record of Decision for the project originally planned for the end of 2023, will now occur during the second quarter of 2024 – a delay of six months.
The Ambler Access Project, as the road is officially known, have been in the planning and permitting stage for several years and was awarded a positive Record of Decision, which concluded the Environmental Impact Statement, in 2020 at the end of the Trump administration.
The Northern Environmental Center in Fairbanks and several Alaska Native tribes and corporation in the region filed lawsuits. In 2022, the Interior Department filed a motion in court that it would reopen the EIS to address areas related to cultural resources and Native subsistence issues identified in the lawsuit.
“We are obviously disappointed to hear the latest status update from the Department of Interior. It has been a year since the court granted DOI’s request for a voluntary remand of the permit, providing ample time for the department to conduct the needed supplemental work on the EIS”, said Ramzi Fawaz, President and CEO of Ambler Metals, the joint development company.
“This unnecessary delay threatens a project that will provide much-needed jobs and economic growth for Alaskans, while also strengthening national security and expediting the transition to a clean energy economy that is supposedly a top priority of the Biden Administration. Interior needs to stop dragging its feet and complete this process and allow this road to be built, as it is already required by federal law.”
“Until last week’s status report, the U.S. Department of the Interior consistently promised a ROD by the end of 2023,” Fawaz said. “DOI now states the ROD is expected six months later, with no justification for the delay or assurances that there will be no further slippage.”
In response to DOI’s update, AIDEA Executive Director Randy Ruaro said, “The update from BLM is frustrating. This delay not only impacts AIDEA and our partners with additional costs, but it also impacts individuals, communities, and the state who would like to see the economic benefits, future jobs and revenue that come with construction and operation of the road.”
AIDEA has developed several mineral infrastructure projects including the Red Dog Mine port and access road also in Northwest Alaska.
Ironically, many of the Native tribes and corporations who had opposed the road have dropped out of the lawsuits and now support the project, citing the jobs and economic benefits that mine development would bring.
South32 and Trilogy conducted aggressive field exploration seasons in 2021 and 2022 at their discoveries, budgeting about $26 million in both years for the work. There is no 2023 exploration program, however, because of the uncertainty over BLM’s decision. Field work related to the road being conducted by AIDEA is continuing, however.