ANWR oil drilling plan fuels regional tension over economic, subsistence and climate issues

Pools of water in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, Alaska (Photo from AP...
Pools of water in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, Alaska (Photo from AP Images) (KTUU)
Published: Aug. 17, 2020 at 7:39 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Monday the Trump administration signed a record of decision outlining how, where and under what terms oil and gas leasing may occur in the 1.56 million acre Coastal Plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Drilling in ANWR has been contentious because it pits the economic opportunities of one of the largest untapped onshore oil and gas reserves in the country against potential impacts to subsistence lifestyles of Alaska Native people in the region.

PREVIOUS: US approves oil, gas leasing plan for Alaska wildlife refuge

Though opponents have multiple arguments against drilling in ANWR, the most pressing concern is impacts to the Porcupine Caribou herd, which migrates each spring to the Coastal Plain where mothers birth their calves.

“The Gwich’in and the Porcupine Caribou have had a cultural and spiritual connection since time immemorial,” said Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We migrated alongside them for over 40,000 years and if you look at the migratory route and the Gwich’in communities, they’re identical. But because climate change has been impacting a lot, a few of our communities no longer get the caribou. We have to travel that much further out.”

Kara Moriarty, President and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, says she recognizes the concerns opponents have, but she believes Alaska has demonstrated it can develop the resource responsibly.

“If we thought this was going to have a negative impact on any species that is important to people of the North Slope, no oil project on the North Slope, whether it’s in current state lands our out in federal lands in ANWR, would ever move forward,” Moriarty said. “We absolutely believe we can coexist. We’ve been doing it for 40-plus years and we’ll continue to do it for 40 more.”

In a video statement released Monday afternoon, Gov. Mike Dunleavy described the decision as a historic day, and claimed that in Alaska “we watch out for the environment better than any place on the face of the Earth.”

The Department of the Interior has indicated that it plans to have a lease sale before the end of the year, however, the decision is certain to be met with lawsuits seeking to stop oil development in ANWR.

“The record of decision is based on a seriously flawed Final Environmental Impact Statement,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska State Director of The Wilderness Society who is Iñupiat. “It doesn’t adequately take into account the adverse cumulative environmental impacts, the impacts it will have on the polar bear, the impacts it will have on the Porcupine Caribou herd, and also it disregards the inherent inalienable rights of the indigenous people -- not only the Gwich’in who depend on the Porcupine Caribou herd -- but also those Iñupiak people in Kaktovik who want to protect the refuge.”

Oil development in the Arctic has also caused tension among regional residents because of fossil fuels’ links to climate change. That tension bubbled over last year when the Arctic Slop Regional Corporation voted to leave the Alaska Federation of Natives following AFN’s decision to declare climate change a state of emergency.

“We’re in a climate crisis and nowhere are we seeing more of those impacts than in the Arctic, and so by opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the coastal plain to allowing more flaring and bring more fossil fuels into the environment, that is going to increase the already bad impacts of climate change,” Itchoak said. “It’s just counter-intuitive. It’s like trying to put out a house fire by catching the other side of the house on fire.”

Itchoak says that The Wilderness Society and its conservation partners will continue to work closely with the Gwich’in Steering Committee to use every legal tool available to stop the leases from happening.

Advocates for blocking oil and gas development in ANWR have already been successful in helping persuade five of the six largest U.S. banks to stop financing new oil development projects in the Arctic.

However, Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, believes those bank decisions will not prevent development from moving forward.

“Companies have different mechanisms for financing,” Moriarty said. “Some companies have a strong enough balance sheet and they don’t need a bank’s project financing assistance. Some times they do it different ways through other private equity firms, so I think it’s a decision that those banks have made, but companies are moving forward and investing in Alaska regardless.”

Moriarty says that despite the current low oil prices and economic struggles in the state, developing ANWR and it’s estimated 8-10 billion barrels of oil will be the investment to help build Alaska’s economy in the future.

“Obviously this is the first step in a long process,” Moriarty said. “I’ve seen some reports the department wants to have a lease sale by the end of the year. They could not do that until this record of decision is issued. Then after that, they’ll be lots of other processes that need to take place, but Alaskans will also have to make sure that we have a competitive tax structure. We’re faced with a massive tax increase on our ballot in November and it would apply to ANWR. So there’s a lot that has to happen on the federal side, but also on the policy side to make sure Alaska is a competitive place to be.”

The Department of Interior’s record of decision is expected to draw litigation.

“You know we’re not giving up. We don’t have the option of giving up,” Demientieff said. “We don’t have the option of walking away. This is our way of life. This is our identity and this is our food security. So we have to stand and fight.”

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