Coldfoot, Alaska, is a lone truck stop-cafe-bar-motel 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It’s the last spot for northbound semis to gas up on their way to Prudhoe Bay and a place where camo-clad hunters smelling to high hell eat stacks of burgers and swap stories while dead moose lie in pickups parked outside. On one of Coldfoot’s brisk September mornings, a rumble grows into steady thunder.
Man-made wind sends grit whipping across the dirt driveway where someone, a few weeks earlier, placed a wooden sign with red-stenciled letters: “Helicopter Parking Only.”
As the four choppers warm up, out from the motel come about two dozen men wearing orange helmets, sunglasses and heavy boots. They make their way to the aircraft and load chainsaws, daypacks, brush trimmers and shovels into long baskets hanging beside the struts, then climb aboard. One at a time, the aircraft rise above the frozen ground, turning first to face the sunlit peaks framing the valley before banking west toward the foothills of the Brooks Range.
Traveling in and out of camp daily between August and early October, when the first snows fell, the crews worked to clear trees and brush from dozens of areas where future, larger crews could build concrete landing pads and begin delivering the equipment necessary to build a road. Not just any road: a 211-mile private “industrial access” corridor sliced through one of the largest and most pristine wilderness areas on Earth.
When the helicopters first arrived on short notice, recalls Benjamin Umstead, Coldfoot’s operations manager, it felt more than a little like that scene from Apocalypse Now. “You could almost hear Ride of the Valkyries playing,” he says.
The Ambler Access Project would connect the world to a mineral belt in an area known as the Ambler Mining District. Beneath this mountainous, virtually untouched corner of Alaska lie rich, possibly enormous deposits of copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold. They’ve stayed where they are to this point because there hasn’t been any clear path from mines to markets. Ambler is remote, so remote that it feels woefully insufficient to situate it with words such as “hundreds of miles northwest of Fairbanks,” but there you have them.
Clean energy initiatives, ironically, are what might finally dirty the district’s Edenic expanse. Last year the US Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which authorized almost $400-billion for investments in energy projects and fighting climate change, including mining for the elements key to decarbonization. Combined with President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill from the year before, which included incentives for domestic sourcing of dozens of different minerals, a mining boom seems close at hand, even in places long thought to be out of reach.
To many people in Alaska, and in the mining industry generally, a road to Ambler would be a victory for pragmatism. The minerals are there, all but begging to be unearthed; the state’s economy would get a welcome boost; and the climate, local communities and even the nation’s security will all benefit if more mining takes place on US soil.
All true, or trueish. But questions persist as to whether Ambler will ever be economically viable, what the environmental impact might be and who truly benefits apart from a handful of state bureaucrats and Australian and Canadian mining executives. Although it makes sense to quit relying on other countries to meet our mineral needs, critics of the Ambler Access Project worry about importing the same exploitative economics and destructive practices that have made mining operations such a scourge in other parts of the world.
As Coldfoot operations manager Umstead put it, indelicately, watching another aircraft lift off toward the site of the proposed road: “Why are we acting like Alaska is f—ing Peru?”
SKYROCKETING DEMAND, DANGEROUS DEPENDENCE
The cold math of a warming climate is that decarbonization will require dirty groundwork. Before we can quit fossil fuels, we’ll need to ratchet up supplies of raw materials for green economy essentials such as EV batteries, charging stations, solar panels and wind turbines. Chief among those materials are copper, lithium, cobalt, zinc, tin, silver and graphite. It’s tough to overstate the scale of demand for “critical minerals,” a catchall to describe 50 such resources that are vital for the economy, decarbonization and military applications. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Minerals for Climate Action report, demand for copper, cobalt, zinc, silver and lithium could increase by almost 500% by 2050.
An electric car today requires six times the mineral inputs of a gasoline-powered vehicle, according to the International Energy Agency. An onshore wind farm needs nine times the volume of a gas-fired power plant. And setting aside the demands of green technology, few people can get through a day without making use of one of the minerals listed in the previous paragraph.
Unless all you read is crypto news, you’ve seen the headlines about how the US is, in the words of a White House report, “dangerously dependent” on other countries for minerals, as well as to refine some of the raw materials and, separately, to make products with them. Taiwan accounts for an estimated 92% of semiconductor production; China accounts for three-quarters of the world’s cell fabrication capacity for advanced batteries; cobalt and tantalum come primarily from Congo; 11 of the world’s 20 largest copper mines are in Chile and Peru. Assessments of this kind are easy to find, and they make it clear that more mining is coming to America.
“Communities in Alaska have every right to ask the hard questions of the mining firms”
Since the 1950s prospectors have known about Ambler’s mineral potential. Modern-day estimates of its contents are imprecise, but at only one of the proposed mine sites, models suggest an anticipated haul of 1.2-million tons of copper, 1.7 million tons of zinc, 291 000 tons of lead, 1 700 tons of silver and 23 tons of gold. According to the US Geological Survey, that deposit, known as Arctic, would be one of the largest such sites on the planet in terms of tonnage and concentration of the sought-after metals.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, an attempt to compromise between the implicit value of conservation and environmental protection in Alaska and economic reality. The state and its residents not only rely heavily on resource extraction but also have the right to do so for commercial and subsistence uses. Section 201(4) of the law includes a specific provision regarding Ambler:
(b) Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, the idea of a giant road connecting Ambler to the Dalton Highway began to receive more serious attention. The primary institutional support comes from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (Aidea), a boring-sounding but powerful public corporation that uses taxpayer money to subsidize private ventures, with the hope of catalyzing economic development. A report by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development concludes that the access road project would result in thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual wages.
Today four primary claim holders are hoping to build mines in Ambler and potentially at points along the proposed route. All are smaller spinoffs of major mining companies, most of them based in Canada and focused on gold. The most active of the four is Ambler Metals, a joint venture between Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals and Australia-based South32. The company has already invested about $15-million in the road, after cutting a deal with Aidea that if the road is ever built, Ambler Metals will have a $15-million credit before it will have to pay any tolls. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In April 2020, just as the scope and potential economic impact of the pandemic were becoming clear, Aidea used an emergency meeting on the topic of Covid-19 relief to allocate $35-million for preliminary fieldwork on the road, even though it did not have final approval from the federal government or the landowners. It was not a move that fostered trust from local stakeholders, environmental groups and tribes, who felt Aidea was using the public-health crisis to advance its road-building agenda. They responded promptly, with lawsuits. Aidea has said it’s committed to responsible development that benefits the local community, and a spokesperson pointed out that two tribal councils recently withdrew from the litigation.
Then, in early 2022, the Biden administration suspended the issuing of permits for projects that cross federal lands. (The Ambler Access Project would cut through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.) Yet that move put the administration in the awkward position of calling for more domestic sourcing of critical minerals to support climate and strategic goals, while simultaneously denying a major proposal to get at those very minerals.
In retaliation, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, declared he would block the nomination of otherwise qualified Pentagon officials until Biden woke up and smelled the copper. “I’m sick and tired of the targeting of my great state,” Sullivan said during an Armed Services Committee hearing.
Yet even while Sullivan was complaining, Ambler backers were quietly pushing forward with their preliminary fieldwork: The spring and summer progress on helicopter landing zones, cultural resource surveys, fish habitat studies, site surveys and sample drilling all continued. Then in the fall, Democratic Representative Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native elected to the House, expressed support for the road. In a statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, Peltola said her constituents have proven able to balance extraction and environmental stewardship.
“That means limiting public access to any road, hiring a local workforce, and earning and sustaining trust with a community-oriented approach,” she said. “We can both develop our state and manage our natural resources in a way that serves this generation and generations of Alaskans to come.”
Yet the biggest boost of all for ventures such as the Ambler Access Project may turn out to be everyday Americans shopping for new cars. The IRA includes tax rebates for EVs, but there are rules for which cars qualify, rules designed to motivate carmakers to do more of their manufacturing and material sourcing in the US. In the end, good old self-interested consumers may push demand for these materials up enough to make a highway to nowhere a highway to somewhere.
Is it worth it, though?
“Knowing what I know of the true impacts of this [road and mining projects], it’s hard to imagine a world where the benefits of such a project would outweigh the costs,” says Alex Johnson, Alaska senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association. “This is about a nationally and globally significant landscape and environment.”
The Ambler road stands to cross 11 major rivers and thousands of streams, potentially devastating fish habitats and disturbing fragile tundra wetlands. Ungodly amounts of gravel will have to be drawn from rivers and stream beds all along the road to support bridges, machinery, fuel depots and culverts, not to mention the road itself. Construction will inevitably send debris into local waterways, as will use of the road, with small amounts of ore spilling out along the 211-mile drive. With more than 160 trucks traversing the road every day for decades, even little bits of spillover, multiplied over time, will go a long, dreadful way. And then there are the migrating caribou of the Western Arctic herd. They usually travel at night, putting them at risk of being killed or, perhaps more damaging, forcing a shift in their migratory behavior. Writing in the Anchorage Daily News in January, retired US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Dick Hensel put it plainly: The environmental and social impacts of the road “cannot be overstated.”
Meanwhile, the track record of companies cleaning up and managing mines in Alaska and around the world is frankly abysmal. A common approach has been to extract precious cargo and then bankrupt the local holding company, leaving taxpayers on the hook to deal with cleanup. Also worrisome to industry critics is whether the banner of critical minerals is providing cover to companies seeking to mine gold, “something we definitely do not need for the clean energy economy,” says Heather Hardcastle, adviser to the Alaska-based Salmon Beyond Borders campaign. “Many of these mining companies, executives and financiers pushing into Ambler are part of the same gold-centric fraternity trying to cash in on prospecting and exploration throughout Alaska and the West. Even if specific mining ventures never happen, they still make a ton of money before moving on to the next speculative project.”
That may be the case for proposed mining sites in other parts of Alaska and the West, but not Ambler, says Dave Szumigala, a mineral exploration geologist with Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources. “No one in the mining industry would call this a gold deposit. This is a copper-lead-zinc deposit with byproduct gold and silver. Gold is certainly important, because it lends considerable value to the ore”—that is, a given volume of rock is more valuable because more metals can be extracted and sold from it—“but gold is not the reason for mining the Arctic deposit or to search for other deposits of this type in the Ambler mineral belt.”
Most opposition to the project comes from environmental groups and hunters, but opinions vary among Alaska Natives who own land the road would pass through or live close to the proposed route. Some of Alaska’s powerful Native corporations, including the primary landowner in the area, Nana Regional Corp, have signed on in support of the road, whereas many individuals remain critical.
The essential conflict for subsistence communities is that, though the road to Ambler could provide badly needed jobs, the development itself could harm the resources that make subsistence living possible. “Communities in Alaska have every right to ask the hard questions of the mining firms,” says Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a trade group that certifies mine sites on behalf of companies. Mines and the roads to reach them provide one generation of jobs, if that, while their footprints will last until the next ice age.
Vincent Simon, a tribal member from the village of Allakaket, embodies the conflicting feelings that many people in Alaska, and especially Alaska Natives, have toward the road and the potential wave of mining projects it would bring. Simon works for the subcontractor surveying the road. Despite the years of environmental impact analysis, he still worries that restrictions won’t be sufficient—or enforced. “The mining company isn’t even part of the USA,” he says, referring to Ambler Metals. “We don’t know. They might just do whatever they want.” Still, he adds, “it’ll get built eventually. But they have to take care of us and the country first.”
They also have to figure out cost. According to a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for analyzing Aidea’s proposal, if there’s a feasibility study for Ambler establishing “that the minerals could be mined at a profit,” the bureau hasn’t seen it. For one thing, the proposed mines are still outrageously remote, even if the new artery is built. Trucks full of ore driving 200 miles east to link up with the Dalton Highway would still be only at the start of their journey. Then it’s an additional 300 miles to the port at Anchorage; next the ore would have to travel by boat to be processed elsewhere. Compare that with the transit cost of ore extracted in Montana, Nebraska or Quebec.
Aidea estimates a total cost for the road of $1.4-billion but says the investment will be recouped—and then some—from tolls paid by mining companies. Yet a report by Montana-based Power Consulting that was commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association found that the road cannot pay for itself. Even assuming that all the proposed mines are developed, that the ore they believe to be present pans out and that all the anticipated tolls are collected through the projected lifetime of the mines, payments to Aidea would be just shy of $700-million, or half the anticipated cost of the road. The seemingly simple fix here may be to charge the companies more to use the road, but no one has said as much.
“There is a critical disconnect,” the report’s authors concluded, between what the mining companies and Aidea have told their respective constituencies about the profits and costs. As Bent Flyvbjerg, an economist and management professor at the University of Oxford, puts it: The “iron law of megaprojects” is that they are “over budget, over time, over and over again.”
Timing is another key variable in all this. By the time the road is built, the mines are dug and the ore begins moving to markets, technology may have shifted to such a degree that certain minerals might not be so critical anymore.
Take cobalt, for example. Tesla Inc. has already announced that it’s phasing out the element’s use in its car batteries. That kind of shift can upend projections about demand. Meanwhile, just about every week there’s another news story about a battery chemistry breakthrough or other green tech innovation. In the fall, the Department of Energy announced $156-million in funding for new technologies to extract and refine critical minerals (and rare earth elements) from sources such as mining waste and coal ash. It’s doubtful any ore from Ambler will hit the market in the next decade. What if they build this $1.4-billion road, but then in 20 years civilization’s mineral needs are completely different?
In the meantime, though, the minerals fueling decarbonization have to come from somewhere. “Are we going to continue outsourcing our environmental and social regulation because it’s convenient?” says Alan Weitzner, former executive director of Aidea. Szumigala, the geologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, says, “If we want domestic supply chains, then we have to develop them in Alaska.”
Alaska’s lawmakers are playing up this new, almost righteous, positioning for mining in their state, a place where there’s essentially no economy without resource extraction. At a conference about critical minerals last summer, Governor Mike Dunleavy said, “If you care about the environment, we need to produce resources in Alaska. If you care about social justice, we need to produce resources here in Alaska. If you care about enriching people, and not dictators, we need to produce resources here in Alaska.”
And then there’s the China angle. Reliance on foreign, sometimes adversarial, suppliers has become a legitimately urgent issue in Washington, and its ripples could reach all the way to Ambler. In February 2021, Biden signed an executive order for a review of critical minerals supply chains. Spending on domestic production, as outlined in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, has only just begun, and last year the president invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act, which gives the government still more tools to catalyze domestic sourcing and refinement. “We’re going to make sure the supply chain for America begins in America,” Biden said during his latest State of the Union address.
Pro-mining forces such as Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s other senator, keep pointing to China as the reason to approve the Ambler road and projects like it, whereas opponents of the road acknowledge the China factor only half-heartedly, making a quick concession before returning to talking points about gravel and caribou.
But the supply chain issue is also an environmental issue in disguise. Think about it this way: Were the Chinese to suddenly cease supplying the US and its allies with certain critical minerals, a race to stand up domestic mining and processing operations would quickly follow. Whatever one’s opinion about mining practices today in terms of pollution control, community benefits or the effect on wildlife, imagine what the permitting process would look like if the federal government were suddenly treating domestic production as a true emergency? There’s a case to be made that Alaska’s people and environment would be better off if Ambler is opened now, carefully, rather than in haste sometime in the future.
Besides, greenwashed gold rush notwithstanding, much, or at least some, of what is extracted from these mines will contribute to our decarbonization. Conversely, failing to access these minerals somewhere will mean slowing the already too-slow transition away from fossil fuels. Remember: That emergency is upon us. So what’s worse for the caribou, having to contend with a road crossing or enduring the myriad consequences of melting permafrost and rising temperatures?
“It’s a moment right now,” says Boulanger, with the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance. “The IRA adds this tension, because on the one hand it means we need this stuff faster. So does that mean faster approval and less environmental protection and Indigenous consent?” Boulanger says it doesn’t have to happen that way. Her advice: “Don’t put such shoddy proposals forward, so you don’t end up in litigation for a decade.” In other words: We have a chance to make mining less awful. Let’s capitalize on it.
During my visit to Coldfoot, I drove with Umstead and a friend about 15 miles south on the Dalton Highway to Chapman Lake, where we pulled off the road for a leisurely 7-mile walk past the lake to the shore of the middle fork of the Koyukuk River. The sky was clear and cold, the surrounding bog coated in browned clumps of grass that would be buried in snow within a week.
From the pebbled shore we skipped a few stones and ate crackers. If the Ambler Access Project is built, it will meet up with the highway not far from where we sat, which means a bridge would have to be built for trucks to pass over this pristine river. I imagined the construction crews busy at work on both riverbanks, turning this spectacular setting into something else, something more like everywhere else. It was heartbreaking.
But then I thought about my children, their uncomplicated and wholly justified concerns about climate change and their recent plea to replace the family’s Honda CR-V with an EV. This is where we are now, our civilization, and it has a distinctly worst-of-both-worlds feel. The planet is already warming. If we have even a chance of mitigating that catastrophe, a whole lot more resource extraction has to happen. That doesn’t mean every last mine should get a green light, or even that most mines should happen. It does mean that out there in the soon-to-be-despoiled splendor of nature, even a win for the climate is going to be an incalculable loss.