Executives seeking Pebble Mine detail their sway over politicians from Alaska to White House

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 this week. 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 devastate its world-famous sockeye salmon fishery.

The conversations were secretly recorded over the past month and a half by the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Posing as potential investors in the mine, EIA investigators conducted video 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 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 will not 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, OK?” Thiessen said.

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, OK?”
— Roland Thiessen, CEO of Northern Dynasty

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Madison Square Garden Sports Corp. has changed the targets executives must meet to collect bonuses due to its spinoff and the pandemic

“Shareholders oppose ‘one-way executive pay-for-performance’: When performance is good, everyone gets paid well, and when performance is bad, boards adjust awards to protect the downside,” Semler Brossy wrote in a report last month. “They are appropriately wary of that philosophy taking hold.

There are signs that philosophy is taking hold. Some companies suffering big drops in earnings or revenue have decided to swap out those metrics for more favorable ones when tallying up bonuses.

For example, Nike’s board decided to stop basing certain payouts on earnings or revenue after profits fell by 37% last fiscal year. It instead will award those payouts on how well the company’s stock price does over three years. The shift is intended to “ensure sustained engagement and drive key business results during a dynamic and unprecedented period,” the apparel giant said in a regulatory filing.

Others are lowering bonuses to conserve cash.

Hess, the Manhattan-based energy company, changed its bonus plan because turmoil in the oil market led to an adjusted first-half net loss of a half billion dollars. Hess reduced the maximum payout allowed from 200% of “target” to 50%. It said the revised plan would continue to serve as a “performance driver” with “rigorous but obtainable goals.”

MSG Sports said its bonus plan is based on executives reaching internal goals for revenue and adjusted operating income. The company said its board “seeks to make target goals ambitious, requiring meaningful growth over the performance period, while threshold goals are expected to be achievable.”

MSG Sports reported negative revenue of $7 million and a $79 million loss from continuing operations for the quarter ending June 30. That was down from positive revenue of $68 million and a $37 million loss from continuing operations in the year-earlier period. Last month the company laid off 53 people, according to a filing with the state, or about 15% of its staff.

One goal, MSG Sports officials say, is to restore the lost jobs.

“As our business returns to normal operations, we would look to bring back many of these positions,” Chief Executive Andrew Lustgarten said.

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