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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Consumers are seeing record high prices for gasoline since Russia invaded Ukraine. But is that good cause to open more public lands to drilling for oil and gas? The answer depends on who you ask.

The national average price for gasoline at the pump went from $3.60 before the invasion to $4.32 per gallon in March, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The nation’s highest prices, at $5.76 per gallon, are in California – more than twice the national pre-pandemic average of $2.20 – and the lowest, around $3.70, are in the midwest, according to the auto club AAA. (Sales taxes and proximity to refineries drive regional price variations.)

Those kinds of prices hurt consumers. Every increase in gas prices is money that can’t go to other household expenses such as food, housing, and health care.

The national average is slowly dropping from last month's high, in part because on March 31, President Joe Biden announced the release of 60 million barrels of oil, the largest ever, from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The 31 members of the International Energy Agency also helped by announcing plans to release another 120 million barrels of crude oil from their emergency oil stockpiles.

The market responded. West Texas Intermediate crude oil dropped from a high of almost $115 per barrel in late March to $94.29 per barrel on April 11. For comparison, oil prices hovered below $90 per barrel before the invasion of Ukraine.

The impact of the crisis in Ukraine shows the importance of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil sources, said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat. Last week he attended the Arctic Encounter Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican.

Manchin told Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz at a Friday press conference that Murkowski has taken him to communities that support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to others that oppose it. Those experiences and Murkowski’s guidance would determine his position on whether to support drilling in the refuge.

“I've seen what goes on in the North Slope. I've been to the villages up there. So I've seen all that. And basically everything she's told me is exactly the way it is and the way I've seen it. So I would take her lead on that and support any way I can for not only Alaska, but for the United States to use all the resources we have in the best possible fashion that we can to make sure that we're independent.” He said he would vote no on any legislation to reinstate protections for the refuge.

Oil and gas, Alaska, lease sales - This Feb. 9, 2016, photo shows a million-pound drilling rig at the CD5 drilling site on Alaska's North Slope. The Trump administration will consider a new management plan and expanded oil drilling for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an Indiana-size area that former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar characterized as an "iconic place on our Earth." The Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, it will take public comment through Jan. 21 on four alternatives for the reserve in northern Alaska. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen,File)

Nome Nugget reporter Jenni Monet asked Manchin for his reactions to a Securities and Exchange Commission plan to reveal climate risk disclosures by companies. Such disclosures could affect investment strategies and the price of stocks.

Manchin said developers already have enough regulation –– from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Army Corps of Engineers. “We have all of this. How much more do you want to smother people with?”

He said the nation’s need for fossil fuel must be met by someone and it’s better to use U.S. oil because he said developers face stricter regulations here.

“You take the United States of America out of the fossil industry, the climate will go to crap in a handbag,” Manchin said.

“And the reason I say that: no one else will invest the money we're investing in carbon capture utilization, trying to find better ways to basically capture the methane…making sure that our transits going to our (liquified natural gas) stations, all of these. The world's depending on us right now, and for our government to double down against us is wrong,” he said.

Manchin said he doesn’t understand the aspiration of people who oppose drilling. “That's not where the world's going. In 10 years, 90 percent of all pollution will come from one continent, Asia,” Manchin said.

He said while the United States has cut back from 500 to 400 coal-fired power plants with many environmental safeguards, Asia is increasing its number of coal plants to 3,400. “Now, tell me which country's going in which direction and trying to do it cleaner. You take us out of that business, I'll guarantee you no one will do what we're doing, spending the money we are (on environmental safeguards).

“I feel very strongly and I have been very vocal about it. And I will continue to because I'm not going down the path that Germany's gone and where Europe's gone in depending on Russia, dirty energy from Russia…and I'm not depending on Venezuela or Iran when we have the resources right here in America,” he said.

Gesturing to ambassadors of Norway, Finland, Greenland, and Japan at the press conference, Manchin said, “We can do it better and cleaner and have the resources to help all of our friends and all our NATO allies around the world.”

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

Attorney Karlin Itchoak, Inupiaq, Alaska director, The Wilderness Society, attended the same Arctic conference. He said he spoke with people there “about the need to find balance and to really focus more energy on making the transition to a more regenerative economy that would be healthier for the environment and for the planet.

“We're really at a crossroads where we're having a paradigm shift and really need to start taking more decisive action to protect the planet, especially the Arctic, from the adverse human environmental impacts of the climate crisis,” Itchoak said. The Arctic is warming at three to four times the rate as the rest of the planet.

Itchoak said drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, expanding oil and gas development, is not a solution to high gas prices.

“There's little connection between prices at the pump and the drilling on public lands. Prices at the pump are determined by global markets and global market forces and the oil and gas corporations’ greed –– not White House domestic policies or the agencies tasked with managing U.S. public lands and waters,” Itchoak said.

“Gas prices are high. Oil and gas CEOs and shareholders are making record profits and the rest of us are paying the price,” he said.

“This situation is a powerful reminder that an economy tied to fossil fuels is unstable. And to help the public with energy prices, we must move to a clean energy economy that lowers cost, protects our national security, and secures our energy dependence for the next seven generations. A lot of our corporations are looking at the bottom line and only planning for the short term,” Itchoak said.

“Unfortunately, U.S. oil and gas production has grown exponentially over the past decade and oil and gas companies have gotten more public land to drill under Biden than under Trump,” he said.

He said the Alaska Wilderness Society is partnering with the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which is a coalition of U.S. and Canadian Gwich’in Athabascan peoples, and other entities to find remedies for the divide over oil and gas development. He noted that the Gwich’in have been fighting to protect calving grounds on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for many years, while Inupiat people are divided on the question of whether to drill in the refuge.

“We're trying to bring all the groups together –– the Inupiat, the Gwich'in, the conservation groups, the industry, the governments, the agencies, to try to look at finding a new solution that would be through an Indigenous worldview or an Indigenous lens and recognize the rights of the Indigenous people and uplift and center our inherent inalienable rights that we've held since time of immemorial and to create new land protections that would benefit the Native people that live on or around protected areas like the Arctic refuge, like the coastal plain,” Itchoak said.

He said drilling in America's Arctic poses an existential threat to Indigenous communities that depend on a clean environment and abundant natural food sources to feed families and sustain their culture.

“This is a matter of human rights and these conferences like this need to elevate not only the rights of industry and the state and the federal government, but we really, really need to elevate and focus on the rights of Indigenous people and not just corporate interests, but our tribal and human rights,” Itchoak said.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 directed the Interior Department to hold two North Slope lease sales by 2024. The first, held just days before the end of President Trump’s term in office, drew little industry interest.

On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order placing a temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease activities. On May 31, he suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, cited the inadequacy of the environmental review required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

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