A view of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What appear to be tiny bumps are caribou. Credit: Florian Schulz

To Bernadette Demientieff, a member of the Gwich’in tribe in Alaska, a December 2017 U.S. federal law that opens part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil and gas development is a human rights violation and a humanitarian crisis.

Drilling in ANWR’s coastal plain “would be a major industrial intrusion in the biological heart of the wildest place left in America.”

To Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, a conservation group, drilling in ANWR’s coastal plain “would be a major industrial intrusion in the biological heart of the wildest place left in America.” And, he added, opposing drilling is not only a fight for protecting the future of the Gwich’in—it’s also “a fight for a cleaner energy future.”

To Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and one of the law’s chief proponents, the measure is “pro-jobs, pro-growth, and pro-energy legislation.”

Now Demientieff, Kolton, and others are encouraging members of Congress to repeal the ANWR language, which was tacked onto the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. That language amends the purpose of ANWR to also “provide for an oil and gas program on the Coastal Plain,” calls for an initial oil and gas program lease sale within 4 years and a second lease sale no later than 7 years after the law’s enactment, and authorizes development of up to 2,000 surface acres of federal land on the coastal plain.

Oil and gas development on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
An example of oil and gas development on Alaska state land. This drill pad is at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, just west of the Canning River delta. Credit: Florian Schulz

The advocates for repealing the language note that with the midterm elections over and with Democrats holding a majority in the House of Representatives when the next Congress convenes in January, an opportunity now arises to try to protect ANWR. At a briefing earlier this month in Washington, D. C, Demientieff, Kolton, and other advocates discussed their options and strategies to keep oil and gas development out of ANWR.

A Critical Time

This is “a critical time” to fight to protect ANWR, with seismic testing for oil and gas potentially beginning this winter, Kolton said at the briefing. With Democrats controlling the House and taking over committee chairmanships in January, “we believe the wind is now at our backs,” he said.

“This is the environmental battle of the new Congress.”

He pointed to some ANWR supporters in Congress, including Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who takes the gavel in January as chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and who opposes drilling in ANWR. Another is Rep. Jared Huffman  (D-Calif.), lead sponsor of legislation introduced in May (House Resolution 5911) that would have repealed the ANWR development language.

Kolton said that his group and others are working with what he calls congressional “champions” for ANWR on “what the best strategic approaches are” for when Democrats take control of the House in January. “This is the environmental battle of the new Congress. This was the one thing that slipped in, that got snuck in, that avoided a full, fair, and open debate,” he said. “This is the issue that we believe—in the environment and public lands arena—that absolutely needs to be front and center from the legislative standpoint.”

Area 1002

The 19.6-million-acre ANWR located in northeast Alaska is the largest U.S. national wildlife refuge. It includes a 1.5-million-acre coastal plain area that is referred to as area 1002 after the section in the 1980 law establishing the national wildlife refuge.

The Gwich’in call the area “the sacred place where life begins.”

The 1980 law, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, deferred a decision about management of the coastal plain because of the potential for oil and gas resources as well as the plain’s significance as a wildlife habitat for porcupines, caribou, and many other species. The U.S. Geological Survey has found that the coastal plain contains an estimated 5.7 to 16.0 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. Prior to passage of the 2017 tax bill, there had been numerous previous attempts that fell short in opening the coastal plain to oil and gas development.

The Gwich’in say that area 1002 is important for other reasons. They call the area “the sacred place where life begins,” or, in their language, “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit.” It’s a birthing and nursing ground for caribou, which the Gwich’in depend on. It is also an important area for polar bears and other species that could be adversely affected by oil and gas development.

Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee—a group that seeks to protect tribal lands from oil and gas development—said the law threatens the way of life, food security, homelands, and identity of this northern Indian tribe in northern Alaska and Canada.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, speaks in Washington, D. C., to protect ANWR.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, speaks outside of a Bureau of Land Management public meeting this past June in Washington, D. C. At the public meeting, proponents and opponents provided input on an environmental impact statement that the bureau is preparing to implement an oil and gas leasing program on ANWR’s coastal plain. Credit: Alaska Wilderness League/Mladen Mates

Those supporting development say that there would be a small footprint because of modern techniques. However, Kolton calls that “a ruse masquerading as some new approach that would have less impact on the environment” and says that the environmental impact would be severe.

“If we can’t draw a line in the tundra and protect the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, then what area of our country that is protected now is truly safe?” Kolton asked. He said that Congress and the Trump administration “are trying to rush ahead of the next presidential election and create new facts on the ground” about ANWR and that he has “never seen an environmental review process for such an extraordinary area go this quickly elsewhere in the country.”

He and others, including Brook Brisson, senior staff lawyer with Trustees for Alaska, are looking at legal tools, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect the coastal plain.

A Short-Term Gain

Demientieff said that although she has “high expectations” that the ANWR provision in the tax bill could be repealed, “it’s really hard to accept” that the area, which she said is sacred to the Gwich’in people, has been opened for oil and gas exploration. Demientieff said that she and others have a responsibility to try to protect the land and will continue to fight “in a good way.”

“Our children, they deserve to see the world as it was in the beginning, not just when we’re done with it.”

“Our children, they deserve to see the world as it was in the beginning, not just when we’re done with it. In 100 years, we want our children to know what wilderness is. We want our children to see the world, the beautiful world our creator blessed us with,” she said.

“Oil is a short-term gain,” she said. “If we take care of the land and the animals, then our future generations will have a chance at survival. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. We don’t want our children to be struggling to survive one day because of the choices we’ve made, and by the looks of it, that’s what’s going to be happening.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2018), Groups gear up to fight oil and gas development in Arctic refuge, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO110733. Published on 28 November 2018.

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