Court filings provide mixed picture of Ambler road progress
A federal decision on the controversial plan to build a 211-mile road through the Brooks Range foothills to provide access for mining development might come a few months later than previously anticipated, according to recent court documents. However, other recent legal developments indicate positive signs for the road’s prospects.
The Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency overseeing the project permitting, told a federal court last month that a revised review of the environmental impacts will be completed later than expected.
In a May 19 status report, the BLM said it will complete its revised analysis by early 2024. Previously, the agency said that the revision would be completed by the end of this year.
The process to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement was launched last year in response to a pair of lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage that challenged the Trump administration’s 2020 approval of the road. In February of 2022, the Biden administration’s Department of the Interior suspended the Trump administration’s approval, formally acknowledging some deficiencies in the environmental studies that led up to it.
The new analysis takes a closer look at subsistence and cultural impacts of the road, which would give access to an isolated Northwest Alaska district where there are several mines primarily targeting copper that are being explored. The main company conducting the exploration – and the potential beneficiary of a road that could make the mines commercially viable — is Ambler Metals, a partnership of Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals Inc. and Australia-based South32. Ambler metals also has a partnership with Native-owned NANA Regional Corp.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned economic development entity, is the proposed developer of the Ambler Access Project.
“This needless delay comes as this project continues to gain support from Alaska Natives and local communities. It costs us high-paying jobs for Alaskans and a domestic source of minerals that are crucial to the energy transition and national security. We are committed to holding Interior accountable to the original timeline it provided to the Court to address two discreet deficiencies in the EIS, and have requested a meeting with Secretary Haaland to urge her to put this vital project back on track,” said the joint statement from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska.
The next status report is due on July 18.
While the new environmental study might be delayed, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleaon has clarified that AIDEA is allowed to do pre-construction work along the 211-mile road corridor. In a May 25 order, Gleason said she intended to clarify that previous events have not precluded AIDEA from conducting groundbreaking activities along the road site, as long as advance notice of 28 days is provided.
In another positive development for the project, two tribal governments in February withdrew as plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits challenging the project. The Allakaket Tribal Council and Huslia Tribal Council announced that they had changed their position on the Ambler project and now believe it could provide important economic benefits.
That lawsuit, filed by various other tribal governments, remains pending, as does a related lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
Road opponents contend that the project would irreparably harm the region’s caribou and other important natural resources and cause social and cultural disruptions.