As government plans Arctic refuge drilling, activists vow to continue protests

Environmentalists and Alaskans are taking issue with the public comment process.

June 24, 2018, 5:58 AM

A sweaty volunteer took off the fake fur head of her full-body, polar bear outfit as a friend and fellow protester handed her a drink of water.

It was 80 degrees and terribly humid in the nation’s capital last week as a few hundred activists stood and chanted outside a public comment hearing to oppose a new law directing oil exploration in the northern tip of Alaskan wilderness.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hearing in Washington, D.C., was the last of a series of meetings the bureau held throughout the spring giving people an opportunity to express thoughts and concerns about the government’s plans to lease part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas developers.

With the 60-day public comment period now closed, the bureau will move forward with the rest of its required environmental impact study, which it hopes to have done by the end of the year.

Typically these studies take two to three years at minimum. The fast-pace is a clear sign the government is quickly ticking through its processes in order to fast-track lease sales down the road.

The BLM got serious blowback from environmental activists, Native American leaders and concerned citizens for only holding limited public comments hearing, exclusively in Alaska and Washington, D.C., though proponents of the drilling and the bureau say the process has been robust and there will be more time for public feedback later.

Representatives from groups like Defenders of the Wilderness, The Wilderness Society and the Center for Biological Diversity held signs at the protest last week in the shape of all 50 states. Each sign had a number, most totaling in the thousands, representing the written comments sent into the bureau opposing the drilling plans from each state.

“This is actually not so much of a democratic process as it is, in their mind, an eventuality of development circumventing our human rights,” Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut- Gwich’in first nation told ABC News in Washington.

The notice from the BLM for the public comment period, also known as the public “scoping” period, said explicitly that when the period wrapped the bureau could move forward with plans to lease at least two 400,000-acre plots in the ANWR’s coveted Coastal Plain, as dictated by the tax law passed by Republicans last year.

This undated photo shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images, FILE

Still, members of the Gwich’in tribe in northern Alaska and their partners vow to keep fighting.

“We are the first nations of this area. We have been living and subsisting off of this land and the animals for thousands and thousands of years. This area is sacred to us. It's not right to sell it out to oil and gas companies for greed,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told ABC News outside the BLM hearing in Washington.

The Gwich’in refer to themselves as the caribou people. For thousands of years their survival in the outer stretches of Alaska and the Arctic has been linked to the porcupine caribou herds that traverse, and specifically nurse their young, in the exact location on the water now slated for oil development.

The 1.5 million-acre segment of the larger refuge, which has been designated for oil leasing, lies along the coast. The caribou come there to escape inland mosquitoes and enjoy nutritious ground. Many experts say the caribous will avoid man-made construction, leaving the herds’ and Gwich’in fate unknown should the leasing and development go into effect.

The push-back from scientists, environmentalists and some of these native tribes in the region comes at no surprise. As President Donald Trump acknowledged in the days after the Republican tax bill passed, Republican leaders have been trying for decades to move forward with plans to look for fossil fuels in this protected area, but have consistently faced heavy opposition. Polling has shown that while many Alaskans favor drilling, most are against it nationwide.

The push and pull of policy plans has made parts of the ANWR some of the most contested public land in the country.

Sen. Al Franken speaks at a news conference on Republican sponsored legislation that would open the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling outside the U.S. Capitol, Oct. 17, 2017, in Washington.
Win McNamee/Getty Images, FILE

The federal government estimated the designated area in the ANWR contains between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The Congressional Budget Office projected with lease sales and revenue sharing the federal government could bring in approximately $1.1 billion over the next 10 years, if the area were to be developed and mined.

It was that monetary potential that convinced Republican leadership to include the development legislation in their tax bill. It helped offset a portion of the lost of revenue from tax cuts in the bill.

According to her staff, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has felt good so far about the progress being made by the Department of the Interior to implement the legislation. Murkowski long pushed for opening up this region to development.

Her spokesperson, Nicole Daigle, wrote in a statement to ABC News, “She appreciates Interior’s decision to host multiple scoping meetings throughout Alaska to ensure that local voices are heard -- especially those who actually live in the 1002 Area. She supports the Department’s commitment to conduct a robust, science-based environmental impact statement for the leasing program.”

The BLM defended its public comment period and the work so far. In a statement to ABC News the bureau said there will be more opportunities for public input as draft versions of the environmental impact studies move forward.

This undated aerial photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a herd of caribou on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AP, FILE

“As part of our scoping process, we held meetings in four Arctic communities as well as Fairbanks, Anchorage and Washington, D.C., where we heard many diverse and consistent messages regarding the thoughts, interests and concerns of a broad range of stakeholders. ... Once we have reviewed all of the approximately one million scoping comments, we will make those available on the project website,” BLM spokesperson Amber Cargile wrote in a statement to ABC News.

While many native people in the area and around the country oppose the drilling, those who have expressed support feel encouraged by the prospect of jobs and dollars coming to the area.

“The oil and gas industry support our communities by providing jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure investments; and has built our schools and hospitals and provided other basic services most Americans take for granted,” Matthew Rexford, a tribal administrator with the Kaktovik tribe, wrote in an op-ed for the Anchorage Daily News last fall. He came to Washington to testify on Capitol Hill last year.

Earlier this month, more than two dozen Democrats wrote to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and argued that because of the area’s federally protected refuge status the department is obligated, even under the new law, to maintain the integrity and diversity of the land and wildlife.

In May, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and other Democrats introduced a bill that would repeal only the part of the tax bill allowing drilling in the ANWR.

Adrienne Titus, from the Inupiaq tribe, grew up on Alaska’s northwest coast and also flew to Washington to speak at a meeting House Democrats held at the Capitol this spring.Through tears she told ABC News about her worry and what the land meant to her.

“The survival of that place is really a part of the survival of who we are as a people,” she said. “Without this connection to the land and what it provides, my grandchildren won't know me for who I truly am.”

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