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Joaqlin Estus 
Indian Country Today

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act granted a decades-long wish of Alaska’s congressional delegation by giving the go-ahead to drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska Natives are divided on the matter.

After a public review process, in August the U.S. Interior Department approved development of 1.5 million acres in the refuge. Agencies have until Dec. 22 to hold one lease sale and until December 2024 for a second.

The refuge is on the North Slope of Alaska, an area about the size of Oregon, where some 18 billion barrels of oil have been produced since the 1980s. The refuge holds an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil.

Drilling there faces hurdles, however, including a couple of dozen lawsuits filed by 15 states, three tribes, U.S. and Canadian Gwitch’in Athabascan people, a dozen environmental groups and a coalition of conservation groups.

The price of oil  is not promising. From 2014 to 2015, it dropped from more than $100 a barrel to around $30 a barrel. It has since bounced back but hasn’t risen above $42 a barrel.

More than two-dozen banks have decided not to fund new Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling projects. Companies like Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and most recently the Royal Bank of Canada, see too many downsides. They cite environmental concerns and the possibility of poor financial returns. Recently the Trump administration threatened to launch investigations against the balky financial institutions.

Some of the area’s for-profit Alaska Native corporations created under a 1971 claims settlement stand to benefit from oil development. Arctic Slope Regional Corporation President and CEO Rex Rock, Inupiaq, last year wrote an opinion piece for The Hill supporting drilling in the refuge.

He said anti-development advocates who would turn “my homeland into one giant national park, off-limits to all but a select few, guarantee our people a fate with no economy, no jobs and little hope for the future.”

Rock said development has been misrepresented by those who paint a picture of an Arctic “garden of Eden” that would be ruined by development.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

He said the region has been home to the Inupiat people for countless generations, and “no one has more at stake in ensuring responsible development in ANWR than we do.”

Last year in a public forum, Arctic corporation board chair Crawford Patkotak, Inupiat, said Alaska Natives can reach a balance that would allow them to “not only enhance, protect and live our culture, but prevent unnecessary regulation that would tie our hands up when it comes to developing our own resources.”

He said “extreme environmentalist action and extreme animal rights groups actions” have threatened both subsistence and oil development. Leaving oil in the ground would “cripple us economically,” said Patkotak.

Representatives of tribal governments and Native nonprofit organizations have voiced their opposition, most recently at a forum hosted by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

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The forum was on potential impacts of opening the refuge to oil development, but much of the discussion was about climate change, which scientists say is progressing in the Arctic at three times the rate of other places.

Mary David, Inupiaq, is executive vice president of the Nome-based regional nonprofit Kawerak Inc. She said any new development will add stress to beleaguered natural ecosystems.

“People and tribes in the region take seriously the impact of climate change because our lives are so intertwined, connected and reliant on the environment.”

Caribou, fall colors, (Western Arctic National Parklands, courtesy of Creative Commons)

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Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Inupiaq, resident of the Native Village of Nuiqsut said unpredictably thin ice leads to potentially deadly accidents when people fall through while fishing. Thin ice also closes ice roads on rivers.

“But more concerning was this year as I put out my fishing net, and last year as I put out my fish net, is seeing the tremendous change to the health of the fish. I used to put my net out and maybe I'd get one sick fish in the season. But last year, every net I pulled out had a sick fish,” Ahtuangaruak said.

She said climate change is also threatening walrus, seal and whale populations.

“We need them. Many others do not eat the types of foods we eat, but we need our foods to feed our families, to be the strong, healthy families that we have been,” Ahtuangaruak said. “We cannot get the calories from other foods that can be bought from the store. We cannot get the energy that we need.”

Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a coalition of Alaska tribes and Canadian First Peoples, Bernadette Demientieff, Gwitch’in Athabascan, said development would also impact the Porcupine caribou herd. The herd of 218,000 caribou annually migrates between Canada and calving grounds on the coastal plain of the refuge.

The caribou provide food, clothing and tools and are the basis of Gwich’in songs, stories and dances, she said.

“The ancestral homeland of the Gwich’in and the migratory route of the caribou are nearly identical,” Demientieff said. “The spiritual connection we have with the caribou is very real.”

Federal agencies are considering approval of seismic testing that would tell developers the amount and location of potentially developable oil, something they’ll want to know before they pay for a lease.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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