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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

After a long fight to open an Arctic refuge to oil and gas development, oil companies showed little interest this week at a lease sale.

The Bureau of Land Management received 13 bids on 12 leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday. Eleven of the bids were from an Alaska state agency, and the others from a few small companies. Companies with large oil production operations in Alaska — ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Hilcorp — didn’t submit bids. The bids totaled $14.4 million.

The lease sale came after 40 years of lobbying by Alaska’s Congressional delegation and the state of Alaska to open the refuge to development.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 directed the Interior Department to hold at least  two area lease sales. The Trump administration went through the permit review and approval process quickly.

Gwitch’in Athabascan people in Canada and the United States have opposed the lease sales. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, which represents Alaskan and Canadian Gwitch’in, along with tribes of Arctic Village and Venetie village, and several conservation groups had filed suit asking a federal judge to block the sale. Tuesday a judge denied their request for an injunction saying they hadn’t proved immediate harm from the lease sale.

Bernadette Demientieff is executive director of the Gwitch’in Steering Committee. She said, “Right now we have pregnant calves on their way to the calving grounds and they will have up to 40,000 calves in a two-week period. Are they going to walk up there into 90,000 pound vehicles, people, cigarettes on the ground, trash? This place is very, very sacred to us.

“...this fight is not over, we're not giving up and that they're not going into the calving grounds. We're not going to allow them to disrupt the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. We want to do everything in our power to prevent them from going in there. We will fight this every step of the way,” Demientieff said.

The tribes said they depend on the cultural and natural resources of the coastal plain of the refuge. In court filings, the plaintiffs said, "the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates about 2,700 miles annually through Alaska and Canada to reach the Coastal Plain because it offers uniquely high-quality habitat for calving, rearing young, seeking relief from insects, foraging, and avoiding predators. 

"The Coastal Plain has been sacred to the Tribes and other Gwich’in communities for millennia because of their deep cultural and spiritual connection to the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Gwich’in call themselves 'Caribou People,' and they refer to the Coastal Plain as ‘Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit:’ the 'Sacred Place Where Life Begins.' The Coastal Plain and the Caribou permeate throughout Gwich’in songs, dance, and oral histories,” the plaintiffs said in court documents.

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The suit listed the wildlife supported by the refuge: polar bears, grizzly bears, muskox, Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, snow geese, peregrine falcons and other migratory birds and Arctic char and grayling. Plaintiffs also said the process of reviewing environmental, subsistence, and historic property was inadequate and violated federal laws.

When the Bureau announced the lease sale in August, the Alaska Native-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corporation praised it as a major milestone in “finally allowing a lease sale to move forward and opening the 1002 Area (named after a section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) to safe, responsible development.” Another Native corporation owned by Inupiat people, the Kaktovik Village Corporation, also supported development.

In a statement by Alaska’s Congressional delegation, all three Republicans praised the lease sale. “Today is a great day and the result of many Alaskans’ tireless efforts over the course of decades. The first lease sale in the non-wilderness 1002 Area did not occur under ideal conditions, but it will benefit Alaskans both in the short-term and well into the future,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“Today is a momentous and historic day for all Alaskans. After forty years and extensive congressional and administrative consideration, we have finally achieved a lease sale for the 1002 Area of ANWR as Congress mandated in 2017,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan.

“This is a monumental day for Alaska. After our fight of over four decades, the first lease sale in the 1002 area of ANWR is here. Securing drilling rights on the Coastal Plain has been one of my career's highest priorities, and seeing the culmination of hard work by countless individuals, including our late Senator Ted Stevens, is very special to witness,” said Alaska Rep. Don Young.

Before the lease sale, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy called the sale historic and tremendous. "Opening [Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] for responsible resource development could put more oil in our pipeline, put Alaskans to work, bring billions of dollars of investment to our state, support American energy independence, and provide critical revenues to our state and local communities," he wrote.

The lack of interest in buying oil leases in the refuge is due to numerous disincentives. Dozens of financiers have said they will not finance operations in the refuge. Fracking for oil has made the United States an oil exporter, which lessens concerns about being dependent on other countries for oil. And a world glut of oil is keeping prices low, reducing potential profits.

With the bids in hand, the plan now is for the Bureau of Land Management to sign leases before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

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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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