Misleading the public: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge debate flared up again

U.S. FWS collecting nest data for the Common Eider Research Project in ANWR. (Photo: Danielle Brigida/USFWS)

After the timeframe for submitting comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has closed, the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) claims that essential information was withheld from the public. Several sources also argue that the potential revenue from drilling is greatly overstated.

From December 28th to March 13th, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sought public feedback on the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Earlier in February, public meetings were held in Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik, Fort Yukon, Venetie, Utqiagvik and Washington, D.C.

Over 70 people signed up to comment on the draft EIS during the public meeting in Anchorage. In contrast to other public meetings in affected communities, the number of speakers advocating for or against the Draft EIS and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) appeared to be balanced in Anchorage.

While some referred to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which calves on the Coastal Plain, as the base of subsistence for their communities as well as the value of the pristine wildlife refuge, others focused on the need for economic development for Indigenous communities, for which the oil and gas development in ANWR might be a good opportunity.

Indigenous rights in question

The minutes from the public meetings also illustrate the struggle for the right to represent communities and raises the question which communities should be listened to. As one defender of the Draft EIS repeatedly emphasized: “Kaktovik is the only community within the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Since the establishment of ANWR in 1960, it has been fiercely discussed whether it should be opened for oil and gas exploration or drilling. ANWR has been the homeland of the Iñupiat and the Gwich’in Athabaskan Indians for thousands of years. While the Iñupiat village Kaktovik is located on ANWR’s northern boundary, the Gwich’in community Arctic Village is on its southern boundary.

Instead of connecting the communities, ANWR and the prospects of drilling divides them. According to Kristofer Pasquale of the University of Idaho College of Law, this is due to “the Iñupiat Natives representing economic interests, and the Gwich’in Indians representing cultural and subsistence interests.”

Reminder of colonialism

Marie Duriez from Utqiavik, “a proud shareholder of ASRC (Arctic Slope Regional Corporation) where ANWR resides”, stated: “I stand with my people of Kaktovik and their right to responsibly develop natural resources in the coastal plain, a small portion of the Arctic Refuge. A small portion of land, I should add, that was promised to us years ago by the federal government to make our own decisions about.”

“We are Inupiaq and have a deep respect for nature,” she added. “I believe we have a strong history and ties to that land to speak in authority over how it's developed and who it's developed for.”

Glen Solomon, a proponent of drilling in ANWR, referred to colonial history and noted: “We are the people of the coastal plain and we are the people you should be listening to.” He reminded: “You imposed western structures of land and animal management onto us in an effort to stifle our subsistence. And now you try to minimize our opportunity to provide for our community.”

Claiming to speak for most of the people in Kaktovik, he continued: “You should be worried about your bully tactics and the work you have done to elevate the voices of one Native group over another Native group.”

Who benefits?

A representative from the Eyak Preservation Council mentioned the damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which are still visible: “In the region still affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, we know firsthand the devastation that oil spills can cause, and they occur invariably wherever they are.”

Other meeting participants, such as Natasha Gamache from Nome, raised the question, whom the development would actually benefit: “You don't see a lot of poor Natives here, but let me tell you, there are a lot of poor Natives living in poverty that can't afford clothes for their kids, that can't afford food for their kids, who can't afford homes for their kids. They are not benefiting from this.”

Exacerbating climate change

Besides talking about drilling in ANWR per se, some opponents of drilling remarked that it would exacerbate global climate change, which strongly affects the Arctic: “The Arctic is ground zero for climate change.”

“First of all, climate change is real”, exclaimed Sarah James during the public meeting in Arctic Village. “President don't (sic)believe that, but we know it because we live right close to the land.” She added: “Polar bear has been a problem. One went as far as Fort Yukon before, and then just recently here. That's not normal.”

Fighting against climate change means fighting against drilling in ANWR, which is why Becky Carr advocated for change: “We have got to do things differently now, and that, to me, means changing our energy practices, stop drilling, and try to decrease our carbon footprint as quickly as we can.”

Rushed process

The process of writing the draft EIS and in particular the speed with which the agency proceeds, was criticized several times. One representative of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges commented: “This is a very rushed process. You have not included Indigenous people. You have not included their languages. You have not reached out to the people and summarized their concerns in this EIS.”

Scientific concerns suppressed

Linked to the rushed process is also the accusation that essential information was hidden from the public. The organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) contends that the Draft EIS did not include any reference to the knowledge gaps that were detailed in 18 memos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). A FWS summary memo explained that these issues need to be addressed for “planning, developing, and managing an oil and gas program in the 1002 area” of the refuge

PEER further argues that the memos were neither listed as withheld, nor published in the framework of on-target Freedom of Information Act requests. PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse considers this a legal vulnerability of the draft EIS.

The information gaps, which comprise among others climate and snow, acoustic environment, contaminants, oil spills, caribou, subsistence, public health, visitor use, cultural resources, and paleontological resources were summarized in a February 2018 memo written by FWS’ Regional Director of the Alaska Region Gregory Siekaniec. Among them, eleven research gaps, including data on the polar bear population, were classified as priority information needs for meeting regulatory requirements and informing the Impact Statement.

Caribou at heart of conflict

One of the studies recommended as necessary by the FWS concerned the monitoring of caribou movements, in order to comply with the species conservation provision in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), as well as the International Agreement for the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The FWS estimates five years of research with yearly costs of $250,000 for the study. The agency further proposed the establishment of a Subsistence Harvest Monitoring Program.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd is central to many arguments in the debate and elicits strong feelings, as also became clear during the public meetings. During the Arctic Village public meeting, Chief James Martin talked about the potential disturbance of the caribou as a result from drilling: “And if they do anything to disturb that area out there and the leaders (of the caribou herd) see that, they are not going to go back there. The leaders, they are just going to turn away. They try to avoid that stuff as much as they can.”

“Revenue overstated”

A multi-state coalition of 16 state Attorneys General led by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey submitted comments objecting to the draft EIS. In addition to pointing out to the legal shortcomings of the draft, the coalition questioned the estimate of the expected revenue from drilling in ANWR, suggesting that the economic benefits are “vastly overstat(ed)”.

This has now been confirmed in an article by the New York Times, which uncovers the findings from the 1980s exploratory well that were kept in the archives of a courthouse in Cleveland. Two Alaska Native corporations, BP, Chevron, and Standard Oil had agreed on the drilling of the well and on working towards the amelioration of the economic situation in Indigenous communities.

As reported by Sidney B. Silverman, a retired lawyer quoted in the article, “the discovery well was worthless.” This begs the question: Is the potential outcome from drilling in ANWR worth the effort?