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

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

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.”

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