There is a massive chunk of high-grade copper, gold, and molybdenum buried under the Alaskan Peninsula. Some people want to exhume and sell it. Other people find this prospect appalling.

The contentious development of Alaska’s Pebble Mine recently moved debate from Juneau to Washington D.C. The permitting process is underway. A typical stalemate exists: proponents favor high-paying mining jobs and independence from foreign minerals. Opponents favor fishing jobs, traditional ways of life, and the preservation of a pristine environment.

In this case, the environment is uniquely pristine: The proposed site of development lies at the headwaters of one of the world’s last untouchedn watersheds and largest salmon runs.

And this case brings forward a troubling double-bind that environmentalists are regularly forced to reconcile. The environmental community (among others) has fought against Pebble Mine with characteristic zeal, and I support these efforts, but a question lingers: we demand copper for telecommunication networks, gold for computer motherboards, molybdenum for heat-resistant aircraft alloys. Can we in good conscience demand these products and their services but banish the possibility of extraction from our own country? Can we export the environmental burdens to a country like Chile where environmental and occupational regulations are laxer, and where the lower ore-grade will require far more energy for refinement?

I’m bothered that there is neither a good nor a correct answer. But perhaps resolution, inevitably, will find itself. The proposed value of the mine is $500 billion dollars. That number carries weight that few arguments will withstand.