Alaska at center of Trump administration’s drive to drill public lands during pandemic

Critics say the government has limited public input amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

July 9, 2020, 12:17 PM

Traditional subsistence hunting has always been a pillar of life along Alaska's remote North Slope. Dependable migrations of bowhead whales, Arctic grayling fish, and the country's last remaining caribou herds have provided for generations of indigenous Alaskans who make their home on America's northernmost edge.

"We depend on a clean environment to feed our families during the year," Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a 66-year-old resident of the village of Nuiqsut, told ABC News. The grandmother of twenty says she owns a harpoon and still participates in the whale hunt on Cross Island each fall.

Rosemary's village is among the few largely indigenous communities scattered throughout the region's vast Arctic oil fields. A small grid of homes located at the limits of most modern transportation routes with just one grocery store, more than three-quarters of the Inupiat Eskimo village relies on traditional subsistence hunting as their primary source of food.

With the arrival of COVID-19, residents of Nuiqsut say it's been decades since their ancestral ways have been this important. The global pandemic forced roads to close and the region's only airline to declare bankruptcy, cutting off an already isolated village from outside supply lines.

PHOTO: Caribou and geese at Teshekpuk Lake in North Slope Borough, Alaska, May 26, 2019.
Caribou and geese at Teshekpuk Lake in North Slope Borough, Alaska, May 26, 2019.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

With the nearest hospital hundreds of miles away and the virus pushing northward, some fear the village -- with a population of just 500 -- would be wiped off the map if community spread took hold.

"It's life or death," Siqiniq Maupin, a community advocate based in Fairbanks whose family lives in Nuiqsut, told ABC News. "We have people that need to hunt and be out on the land right now because we just don't know what's going to happen this winter."

But in the midst of the crisis, as the tribal government frantically moved to obtain medical supplies and shut down non-essential services, residents learned their community was being asked to confront yet another challenge -- the federal government's controversial plan to massively expand oil and gas drilling in the area.

In April, the Bureau of Land Management -- the agency within the United States Department of the Interior responsible for the administration of public lands -- moved forward with "virtual public comment hearings" on revised plans for the controversial ConocoPhillips Willow Oil Project.

The Willow project aims to add a gravel mine and up to 250 oil and gas wells to the existing energy extraction sites already surrounding Nuiqsut on nearly all sides. First proposed in 2018, the project has long been opposed by some tribal leaders and environmental groups for its potential impacts on wildlife and public health.

PHOTO: An aerial view of Nuiqsut, AK, May 28, 2019.
An aerial view of Nuiqsut, AK, May 28, 2019.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

"It's a massive project that threatens wildlife, exacerbates climate change and impacts indigenous culture and food security," Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told ABC News. "We were concerned before the pandemic but to see the Bureau of Land Management continue to kind of move at warp speed during the pandemic … makes no sense at all."

ConocoPhillips' declined to be interviewed for this report, but a company spokesman denied the project would impact subsistence hunting or public health in a statement to ABC News.

"The Willow project will be one of the first North Slope projects designed and built-in compliance with new EPA rules that reduce emissions and minimize environmental impacts," the spokesperson wrote.

The Willow development's virtual hearings -- conducted via Zoom -- were the culmination of a contentious public comment period for the project's revised environmental review that commenced on March 20, just a week after President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 to be a national emergency and four days after he advised all Americans to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.

PHOTO: Community Advocate Siqiniq Maupin speaks at the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation meeting held in Utqiagvik.
Community Advocate Siqiniq Maupin speaks at the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation meeting held in Utqiagvik.
Courtesy Siqiniq Maupin

The release of the Willow project's new environmental review would typically result in more in-person meetings within the village to ensure public awareness and input regarding the proposed changes, but the Bureau of Land Management relied on teleconferencing for the remote indigenous community, ignoring repeated requests from the tribal government, congressional leaders, and environmental groups to suspend the process in light of the region's lack of internet access and the pandemic's impact on public participation.

"They kept getting cut off, losing reception, words weren't being heard," Martha Itta, a lifetime resident and tribal administrator for the village who called into the hearings, told ABC News. "It was a really poor process."

PHOTO: Nuiqsut Tribal Administrator Martha Itta wears a face mask in front her tribal village offices.
Nuiqsut Tribal Administrator Martha Itta wears a face mask in front her tribal village offices.
Courtesy Martha Itta

Despite the technical challenges and emotional pleas from village members for an extension, the Bureau of Land Management closed the public comment period on May 4, effectively cutting off organized public input as the agency finalizes its plan for the project en route to getting final approval. The agency is still accepting comments via mail and the Bureau of Land Management website.

Alaska Bureau of Land Management officials defended the virtual hearings and emphasized the importance of maintaining "a capable and functioning government," in an email to ABC News, saying that the agency was using technology to both protect its employees and "ensure connection and service to the public."

"These virtual meetings are providing more people with access to participate and have their voices heard," Alaska Bureau of Land Management officials wrote in a statement to ABC News, saying the virtual meetings drew approximately 50 more people than in-person meetings conducted earlier in the review process.

"Public input is fundamental and of the highest importance to the Bureau," the spokesperson wrote.

But some Nuiqsut residents say the agency's rush to expand oil operations during a pandemic deliberately ignored their concerns. Just last month, the agency followed up the Willow project's virtual hearings with a massive plan to offer oil companies 18.6 million more acres of public lands across Alaska's Northwest, including previously protected wildlife areas such as Teshekpuk Lake, a vital subsistence hunting location for indigenous villages including Nuiqsut, where caribou herds, polar bears, and millions of migratory birds can be found.

"The [oil development] process is sacrificing our village," Ahtuangaruak told ABC News. "It shouldn't be forced down our throats when we are not effectively able to participate."

'A multi-fronted assault on the environment'

The Willow project is one of several plans the federal government is currently advancing that could turn over vast swaths of America's landscapes to oil and gas interests while the public's attention is focused on the ongoing pandemic and civil unrest.

Since President Trump's March 13 national emergency declaration, the Bureau of Land Management has leased more than 100,000 acres of public lands to fossil fuel companies across the country and pushed an array of extraction-friendly proposals that could impact iconic areas ranging from the Alaskan Arctic to the American Southwest.

Public lands surrounding Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Bears Ears National Monument, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are just some of the treasured American landscapes that would see oil, gas, and mineral development under the various proposals currently underway.

PHOTO: Ancient Pueblo ruins are preserved in the remote desert of central New Mexico, Aug.20, 2019, at the Chaco National Monument.
Ancient Pueblo ruins are preserved in the remote desert of central New Mexico, Aug.20, 2019, at the Chaco National Monument.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

"People are hurting around the country," Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Fund told ABC News. "And unfortunately, the administration chooses this opportunity to wage a multi-fronted assault on the environment and public health."

The controversial moves have garnered little attention outside of directly affected communities and have some critics claiming the administration is using the cover of a global pandemic to advance oil and gas interests on public lands.

"The administration is hoping we'll be too distracted to understand what's at stake," Deans said. "This is short-term profits for big polluters and leaves the rest of us to pay the price."

The Trump administration's drive to drill public lands for fossil fuels is perhaps most apparent in Alaska. There, on the country's last great frontier, the Bureau of Land Management has not only gone forward with controversial virtual public comment hearings for the ConocoPhillips' Willow Project, but it is promising a historic increase in oil and gas development across the state's public lands in the months to come -- despite the global oil glut underway.

In addition to the Willow Project's central processing facility and infrastructure pad, access and infield roads, pipelines, a gravel mine, an airstrip, and up 250 new wells, the agency is also proposing the construction of an entirely separate 20-foot-high, 211-mile-long gravel road intended solely for industrial copper mining in the region.

Meanwhile, top officials at the Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior have also recently doubled down on their vow to conduct oil and gas lease sales inside the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before the year's end. The move would be an unprecedented step toward opening America's largest wilderness area to oil and gas development.

In addition to transforming some of Alaska's most iconic landscapes and exacerbating climate change in the already melting Arctic, critics argue the new developments threaten to cut indigenous villages off from one of their most important food sources: migrating caribou herds.

PHOTO: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Patrick J. Endres/Getty Images

"It's just so overwhelming right now," Maupin said. "We have so many projects happening at the same time over such a large state that we can't attend every single hearing."

Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior leadership declined to be interviewed for this story. William Perry Pendley, the Bureau of Land Management's temporary head, has stated in the past that "it is crucial that we fulfill our statutory and regulatory responsibilities during this difficult time to provide for our future economic stability when Americans do return to work."

But according to former California State Bureau of Land Management Director Jim McKenna, a 40-year agency veteran, the Bureau of Land Management appears to be ignoring the conservation aspect of its mission.

"Oil and gas leasing now in the midst of a pandemic oil glut makes no sense," McKenna told ABC News. "It flies in the face of public interest."

According to McKenna, the flood of agency activity during the pandemic shows the current leadership's "very cavalier attitude towards the public."

"People who are the most directly affected are being shuffled aside," he said. "And that to me is wrong."

PHOTO: An oil pipeline stretches across the landscape outside Prudhoe Bay in North Slope Borough, Alaska, May 25, 2019.
An oil pipeline stretches across the landscape outside Prudhoe Bay in North Slope Borough, Alaska, May 25, 2019.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Pendley, the agency's temporary head, spent much of his career as an attorney representing oil and gas interests in public land disputes, arguing that the federal government should transfer or sell most of its public lands to states.

In May, conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration for extending Pendley's tenure for the fifth time without Senate approval. Late last month, the White House said it intends to officially nominate Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management.

According to McKenna, many of his former colleagues are "dispirited" at the direction the agency has taken and "don't feel like they can say things that are true out loud."

"This isn't the agency that I grew up in," McKenna said.

A widespread sense of distrust

Historically, oil and gas development has brought monetary wealth to some indigenous Alaskans, particularly those with shares in Alaskan Native Corporations who receive regular payments from developers -- but critics say that with the added resources also came pollution, health risks and a noted impact on the land and waters local populations have depended on for centuries.

Perhaps no village embodies this contrast better than Nuiqsut, which sits directly beside the National Petroleum Reserve and has seen an explosion of oil and gas development over the past several decades.

"When I came to Nuiqsut, the lights were 20 miles away," Ahtuangaruak said in reference to the oil and gas facilities. "Now I have lights to the east of us from development at Prudhoe Bay, to the north of us from the offshore development in the Beaufort Sea, to the west of us from the National Petroleum Reserve, and now to the south of us from the new developments."

As Alaska's largest oil producer with most of its key operations in the North Slope, ConocoPhillips' presence is hard to miss in the region. In addition to its ubiquitous processing and extraction facilities surrounding Nuiqsut -- where children can see active drill pads from their school steps -- the oil company sponsors educational events such as the village's health fair and science symposium, as well as a nearby playground.

PHOTO: AA ConocoPhillips building stands in Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 14, 2017.
A ConocoPhillips building stands in Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 14, 2017.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The company is also a major political force, spending nearly $5 million dollars on national political lobbying in 2019, and it is among the top five donors to Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski -- giving nearly $40,000 to her campaigns over the past five years as the company grew its holdings in the state.

During her career as a community health aide from 1986-2000, Ahtuangaruak said, she started noticing more respiratory illnesses in her village as development grew around it. She is among many in the village who believe the oil and gas infrastructure has compromised their health.

"[When] I stopped working at the clinic, there were 70 [respiratory illness cases] -- but when I started, there was just one," she said. "There were nights I was up all night helping people breathe."

In response to the community's widespread concerns about air pollution, the state of Alaska conducted multiple assessments of the area's air quality and found that pollutant concentrations were "generally well below the national ambient air quality standards," blaming any potential rise in respiratory problems on seasonal flus, poor indoor air quality, diesel auto-emissions, and high smoking rates.

PHOTO: Milne Point is located on Alaska's North Slope, Northwest of Prudhoe Bay.
Milne Point is located on Alaska's North Slope, Northwest of Prudhoe Bay.
Gallo Images via Getty Images

However, ConocoPhillips owns the only air monitoring instruments in the area, leading many residents to doubt the government's findings. The instruments are operated by a consulting company and its reports are prepared for ConocoPhillips before being sent to government and tribal agencies as well as audited quarterly by another independent party. Yet ConocoPhillips' multiple oil and wastewater spills in the region, including in 2009 and 2017 -- along with one of the company's subsidiaries pleading guilty to failing to maintain proper records of an oil spill and attempting to hide a spill in 2004 -- have only added to the community's sense of distrust.

"ConocoPhillips has consistently proven that we can safely, responsibly, and sustainably operate on Alaska's North Slope," a company spokesman wrote to ABC News.

"The 2004 incident you are referring to was a records-keeping violation following a deck spill during a routine maintenance operation," the spokesman wrote. ConocoPhillips's subsidiary, Polar Tankers, "immediately terminated the ship's captain" and agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and a $2 million community-service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"Polar Tankers resolved the matter with the authorities, and subsequently has been recognized by state and federal programs for its health, safety and the environment performance. However, this has no connection to our North Slope operations," the spokesman said.

This coming winter was expected to be a major production year for ConocoPhillips in Alaska, but the oil glut caused by the pandemic forced the company to scale back its ambitions in the Arctic. The Bureau of Land Management's virtual hearing announcement for the Willow project came two days after ConocoPhillips announced it was cutting roughly $200 million from its Alaska budget -- mainly by slowing production in the North Slope.

"Significant public comment on Willow development occurred well before the COVID pandemic," the ConocoPhillips' spokesperson wrote. "We are supportive of the BLM's efforts to continue permitting projects on a timely basis."

At the time of the announcement, Pendley, the Bureau of Land Management head, said the move to go forward with the virtual hearings was "in the spirit of service to the public," while Bureau of Land Management Alaska officials said the hearings actually increased public participation.

"It's completely insulting," Maupin, the community advocate, told ABC News, saying that if there was any increase in participation it was "because people are crying, asking you not to inhumanely hold these processes during a pandemic."

PHOTO: Martha Itta tribal administrator of Nuiqsut, Siqiniq Maupin Community Advocate, Bernadette Demientieff, Community Advocate ED of the Gwich’in Steering Committee at Frontline Oil and Gas Conference held in 2019 Ponca, Oklahoma.
Martha Itta tribal administrator of Nuiqsut, Siqiniq Maupin Community Advocate, Bernadette Demientieff, Community Advocate ED of the Gwich’in Steering Committee at Frontline Oil and Gas Conference held in 2019 Ponca, Oklahoma.
Courtesy Siqiniq Maupin

"This entire process was a joke, and it's really sad that so many people had to endure that," she said.

"We always say they don't give a damn about us -- it's really heartbreaking," Nuiqsut resident Martha Itta said. After the hearings, Itta wrote a scathing letter to the Bureau of Land Management describing her experiences and demanding the process be halted.

Despite the recent setbacks, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak has vowed to continue her opposition to the Bureau of Land Management's plans for her village -- but she's concerned that few outside her community are paying close enough attention.

"We need our nation to respond," Ahtuangaruak told ABC News. "Otherwise, they are going to push forward to protect profitability at all costs. Stand up and protect the life, health and safety of people who are living nearby and protect this beautiful area for generations to come."

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