Biden Admin Could Use 'Indigenous Knowledge' To Kill Critical Mining Project

The Ambler Access Project is expected to yield billions of dollars in precious metals used for renewable energy projects

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
March 28, 2024

The Biden administration could use "indigenous knowledge" to jettison a critical mining proposal projected to yield billions of dollars in precious metals used for renewable energy projects.

Documents and emails obtained by Protect the Public's Trust and reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon show that senior Interior Department staff consulted with tribal leaders in an environmental review of the Ambler Access Project, a proposed 211-mile road in northwest Alaska that leads to copper and zinc deposits, considered to be some of the largest in the country. Those two metals are used in a variety of consumer products, such as batteries and wind turbines.

The White House released a draft of its environmental review for the project, which is expected to cost $2 billion, last October. The over 1,000-page draft contains at least 14 references to "indigenous knowledge," a pseudoscientific belief that posits native peoples possess unique insights about the workings of the universe.

"Many Indigenous ethics and values … include not harvesting more than one needs; sharing one's harvest and respecting the animals to ensure future success; and waiting for the first of a caribou herd to pass by the community before hunting from the herd," the draft report states.

Proponents of the project, which was first approved by former president Donald Trump, say it is critical for renewable energy projects championed by the Democratic Party. Otherwise, they say, the United States will be forced to rely on overseas mines in Africa and China. The $370 billion Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden in 2022, mandates that the United States create its own domestic supply chain for precious metals.

A final decision on whether to greenlight the project is expected this year, although the draft review noted numerous environmental concerns that suggest the Biden administration may deny any building permits.

"In her first months as Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland promised to 'unleash the science.' Yet, when it matters, her department is using undeniably subjective approaches that are not subject to evaluation, validation, or duplication—that are decidedly not science—in making major decisions," said Michael Chamberlain, director of Protect the Public's Trust.

The documents show the proliferation of "indigenous knowledge" throughout the government since the White House's 2022 memorandum directing federal agencies to consider the belief system in "research, policies, and decision making." Senior White House officials have already cited "indigenous knowledge" in the decision to deny oil drilling leases, and the Centers for Disease Control recently added the practice to its scientific integrity guidelines.

"Indigenous knowledge," emails show, could eventually make its way into the environmental evaluation process for the Ambler Access Project. Among the new types of analysis in the environmental review, a summary of the report states, is the expanded "incorporation of Indigenous Knowledge gained through consultations, ethnographic interviews, comment letters and testimony."

One estimate put the value of the copper deposits in the potential mines at $4 billion, although others say the value is more than double that.

Environmentalists and some native tribes in Alaska oppose the Ambler Access Project. Roughly 20 miles of the proposed road would cross through the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference in May wrote to an official at the Bureau of Land Management, documents show, with "proposed methods" on how to include "indigenous knowledge" in the agency's environmental review of the Ambler Access Project. Those methods include "social frames of reference," which is the "way indigenous people perceive, use, allocate, transfer, and manage their natural resources."

"Traditional ecological knowledge cannot be used properly in isolation from the social and political structure in which it is imbedded," the letter reads.

That letter was circulated by several Department of the Interior staff. A document entitled "Including Indigenous Knowledge in the Ambler Road [Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement]" was circulated three weeks later.

The Department of the Interior did not respond to a request for comment.

Before the Department of the Interior published its draft report, senior officials circulated guidelines for how staff can incorporate "indigenous knowledge" into their work. A December 2022 email entitled "Department Responsibilities for Consideration and Inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge in Departmental Actions and Scientific Research" features a department handbook outlining some basic principles of "indigenous knowledge."

Among those "principles" is the use of the "physical and metaphysical world linked to moral code," as well as "trust for inherited wisdom." By contrast, "other scientific approaches" are "limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world."

"The Department recognizes [indigenous knowledge] as one of the many important knowledge systems that contribute to the scientific, technical, social, economic, cultural, and political well-being of the United States and to the collective understanding of the natural world," the document states.