Initial Publication Date: August 18, 2021

Geoethics Case Study: Pebble Mine, Alaska

David Mogk, Montana State University-Bozeman


The proposed Pebble Mine, Alaska, is one of the world's biggest proven Cu-Au-Mo deposits. However, it is located at the headwaters of rivers that flow into Bristol Bay that supports one of the largest salmon runs in the world and that support subsistence living of indigenous people. How can the societal needs for mineral resources be balanced against environmental concerns regarding mining and impacts on indigenous people? Can a major open pit mine be responsibly developed in this fragile Arctic environment? This case study looks at the geological and cultural setting of this project, the proposed mine development, and multiple perspectives that advocate or oppose the development of this mine. The 7-Step Ethical Decision Making model is used as a guide to explore this issue.


This case study can be used in a range of Earth Science classes including Introductory Physical or Environmental Geology courses to upper division courses in Mineralogy, Petrology, Geochemistry, or Economic Geology.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students should be familiar with the 7 Step Ethical Decision Making Model.

How the activity is situated in the course
We advocate using these Case Studies as a "5 minute challenge" inserted into any Earth Science course to support Teaching Geoethics Across the Curriculum. Regular exercises focused on considerations of Geoethics can be integrated to reinforce ethical principles in the training of future geoscientists and for the general public. Group discussions, role playing, and short reflective writing exercises may be used to engage these issues. Students should do assigned reading from the suggested articles (bottom of page) in preparation for class activity that could be: small group discussion, role playing exercise, Socratic questioning, etc.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
The primary goal of this activity is to provide the opportunity for students to practice ethical decision-making using a real-life scenario. This includes a careful assessment of the facts of the situation, formulating a course of action, and considering the consequences of these actions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Ethical decision-making is closely aligned with critical thinking skills. Resolution of ethical dilemmas requires both synthetic and analytical reasoning.

Other skills goals for this activity
Communication skills are required to present analysis of the case study and to defend a recommended course of action.
Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Competing values are addressed regarding need to supply critical resources for society and economic development vs. environmental protection of fragile Arctic lands, impacts on the greater ecosystem and on the people who depend on subsistence living in this area.

Description and Teaching Materials

This case study provides background information on the geologic setting and mine development plans for the Pebble Mine in Alaska. It also examines the potential environmental impacts of mine development on a major salmon fishery and on the Native people who live in this area.

Case Study Scenario

The accompanying Teaching Activity Document provides background information on the geologic setting, mineral exploration and mine development plans, possible environmental impacts, and multiple perspectives that advocate for or oppose the development of the Pebble Mine in Alaska. Students are encouraged to explore these resources to understand the situation, and then apply the 7-Step Ethical Decision Making Model to develop their own analysis of whether or not the mine should be developed.

Suggested Teaching Activities

Download the file with background information, suggested references and links to provide the foundation for further exploration, and suggested teaching activities that include a) Guided Discussion, b) Personal Reflection Writing Assignment, or c) Role Playing activity Geoethics Case Study- Pebble Mine.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Aug18 21).

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students should be given time to read and reflect on the scenarios that are presented. Supporting articles from the popular press and scholarly journals are also provided for deeper exploration of these topics. Class discussion (or Case Study written review) can be guided following the 7 Step Ethical Decision-Making model. There are no absolute right or wrong answers here--but students should be encouraged to understand the full context of the situation and possible responses and their consequences. Recommended decisions should be based on the strength of evidence presented.

Students should be encouraged to do their own investigative work to explore these issues in more detail.

The background information provided in the scenario and supporting materials can be used as the foundation for classroom practice such as these strategies from Pedagogy in Action:


Personal Reflection:

1. Identify your own relevant personal values in relation to this ethical dilemma
2. Identify any societal values relevant to the ethical decision to be made
3. Identify the relevant professional values and ethics

Written or Oral Responses to this Ethical challenge:

1. Develop your own rubric for the 7 Step Decision-Making Model, to demonstrate the completeness or maturity of student thought for each step.
2. As an example, apply this rubric on Assessment: Measuring Students' Moral Development from the Illinois Institute of Technology, :

"One tool for grading longer, more complex essays and case study responses is the Pittsburgh-Mines Engineering Ethics Assessment Rubric. This grading matrix was developed by a team of researchers from engineering, philosophy, and bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh and the Colorado School of Mines. (6) While made for analyzing students' analyses of engineering ethics cases, variations of this kind of rubric could be used for almost any assignment of this kind. The rubric measures the following five attributes: on a scale of "1 (lowest) through 5 (highest)"

Recognition of dilemmas
(1) students fail to see problem;
(5) student clearly identifies key ethical issues.
(1) students ignore important facts;
(5) students identify unknown facts and use their own expertise to add appropriate information
(1) students provide no analysis;
(5) students cite analogous cases, offer more then one alternative solution, and identify risks for each solution.
(1) students have wondering perspective;
(2) students have one perspective;
(5) students have global perspective.(6)
(1) No resolution, resolution lacks integrity;
(5) resolves case thoroughly through clear argumentation and understands consequences of various actions.

References and Resources

References and resources (URLs) are provided in the attached Teaching Activity Document.

Scientific Background



In favor of Developing the Pebble Mine


In Opposition to Developing the Pebble Mine