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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Corrected.
Monday U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, told reporters, “The Biden administration announced that it was in essence taking half of the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska, what we call NPR-A, off the table. This is shortsighted. It won't help, certainly, Alaskans. It won't help our energy independence. It's something that I'm sure Vladimir Putin was pleased by.”

Worst, he said, the administration didn’t heed local interests. He introduced Inupiaq leaders to describe those interests. Josiah Patkotak represents the North Slope and Northwest regions of Alaska in the state legislature and is a project manager for ASRC Eskimos, Inc. He’s also a whaler.

He’s critical of the Biden administration’s plan to reduce the leasable area in the NPR-A. Under President Donald Trump, 82 percent of the reserve, or 18.6 million acres of land, was available for development. Under Biden, 52 percent, or almost 12 million acres, is available.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which is located on the western North Slope of Alaska, holds some 8.7 billion barrels of developable oil. For comparison, Prudhoe Bay has produced about 12.5 billion barrels of oil.

Patkotak said the people of the North Slope and Northwest Alaska are fighting for a balance between resource development and subsistence, the traditional harvesting of food from the land and sea.

He described a 1970s-era leader who said the Inupiaq wanted title to their land so they could make money from it but also to look after subsistence opportunities. “That's part of the deal that we made,” in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which mandated the creation of land-owning for-profit corporations to develop resources and issue dividends to Native shareholders.

“These were the cards that we were dealt and we're utilizing them to the best that we can play them so that we can provide for our people. And the way that we provide for our people is through the resources that are in our land,” Patkotak said.

“When the senator spoke of some of that environmental social justice, I think one of the things that a lot of people tend to forget is that we, people, are part of that environment,” Patkotak said. “And we always have been, even when it wasn't popular, pre oil, pre money to be made, and we always will be whenever there isn't any money to be made up there.”

He said the borough – through its scientists in the wildlife department, and the permitting under the planning department, “I would say that we fought very hard to strike a careful balance because we're all users (of wildlife resources) at the end of the day. You know, in one way, shape or form, each of our families are out there, either shooting ducks, caribou, seals, bearded seal, walrus, whales, and so those are important. Those are important resources to us. And I would argue that right up there as far as important resources is our ability to participate in the cash economy.”

Board President Forest (Deano) Olemaun, Native Village of Barrow, also Inupiaq, is a former North Slope Borough Assembly member, a current board member for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and a former chief administrative officer for the borough.

He and Patkotak agree infrastructure is an issue. The only way to address the need is by having an economy and the only way to have an economy is through oil, said Patkotak. He said the region needs roads, water and sewer, utilities and housing.

Olemaun said, “when we, as the tribal members, people here of the Arctic look at what's going on outside of our world, we were like, ‘we wish we had this. We wish we had that.’ And, you know, one of those things is affordable housing.”.

He said the Arctic’s high cost of living means “a $200,000 home (in other places) now is nearing on upwards of three quarters of a million dollars. And because of that, you know, we have such enormous overcrowding of structures that would not be accepted anywhere else in this world,” Olemaun said.

“There's a lot of things that we'd love to just have opportunities to do and more responsibility to the decisions that are made that will promote the life and wellbeing of every man, woman, and child here in our region. And so we try and do that,” Olemaun said.

Olemaun said North Slope Borough scientists incorporate traditional knowledge into their work and study ways to create or preserve habitat and support development.

“If they (federal agencies) review and study more of the scientific data that our scientists are producing, then they'll know that we just don't say that we love to hunt the animals that our ancestors have done over the centuries, but we now want to make sure that we create an environment that is both beneficial to those that live off the land, and those that want to aspire to bring greater defense of our homeland from tyrants like folks across the sea,” he said.

For its part, the Biden administration’s April 2022 plan was issued to comply with an injunction from the Western District of Louisiana. The Department of the Interior said it’s taking action that “reflects the balanced approach to energy development and management of our nation’s public lands called for in the agency’s November 2021 report on the Federal Oil and Gas Leasing Program.” The Department of Interior said NPR-A oil and gas leasing plans avoid important wildlife habitat and migration corridors, as well as sensitive cultural areas.

The report also recommended cuts in leasable acreage in part because more than half the lands now being leased are not being developed for oil production. The leases, however, do prevent other uses of the lands.

“Of the more than 26 million onshore acres under lease today to the oil and gas industry, nearly 13.9 million (or 53 percent) of those acres are non-producing,” the report said.

“As of September 30, 2021, the oil and gas industry holds more than 9,600 approved permits that are available to drill. In fiscal year 2021, BLM approved more than 5,000 drilling permits, and more than 4,400 are still being processed.

“Industry suggests that the significant surplus of leases and permits is necessary for a successful business model, but this speculative approach contributes to unbalanced land management. When land is under contract for potential oil and gas activity, the shared public lands cannot be managed for other purposes, such as conservation or recreation,” the report states.

Some of the non-producing 55 percent of the leased acreage may be in earlier stages of development, “or being held for speculative reasons, indicating a sufficient inventory of leased acreage to sustain development for years to come,” the report said.

It’s unclear how much demand there is for more leasable acreage in Alaska. The most recent oil and gas lease sale for the North Slope got a cool reception from major production companies.

(Related: Arctic oil, gas lease sales get cool reception)

Sullivan said the oil industry is not necessarily demonstrating disinterest. “A lot of times the industry doesn't show, they don't show their cards… a lot of times interest is hard to discern until there is an actual lease sale because they don't like showing that at all for competitive reasons and other things.”

The Bureau of Land Management received only 13 bids on 12 leases on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in January 2021. Eleven of those bids were from the state of Alaska, and none of the companies with significant operations in Alaska submitted bids.

Still, rather than looking at the oil industry’s interests, Patkotak said, “we need to look first at the local level. I think that's the important interest to gauge first.”

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Corrected to show Josiah Patkotak said "And we always have been, even when it wasn't popular, pre oil, pre money to be made, and we always will be whenever there isn't any money to be made up there."

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