When the Bureau of Land Management rushed a series of public hearings about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Alaska Wilderness League shot back.
“BLM told us they wouldn’t be holding anymore hearings, we said fine, we’ll do it ourselves,” said Monica Scherer of AWL.
At their “Defend the Arctic” public hearing last night, AWL brought in a stenographer. Having an official court reporter at the event who could submit her transcription to the public record meant anyone who stepped up to the mic was not just speaking to the immediate audience, but to the public at-large.
“I’m here at the direction of our elders,” said Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which protests the drilling. “We’re scared, we’re worried, we’re frustrated.”
The event was structured like a town hall, where a panel of people affiliated with the event spoke before the mic was opened up to public comment. Demientieff, who kicked off the event, has been on a tour with the Alaska Wilderness League to rally allies to voice their concerns about how quickly the recent push to lease land in the refuge for drilling is moving. She opened her portion with an introduction in her native language and ended her speech on the verge of tears.
The Alaska Native Corporation, which was established in the 1970s to address Native land settlement claims, owns the subsurface rights to most native Alaskan lands and has essentially become an oil development contractor in the state. The Gwich’in tribe is one of only a few that opted out of this agreement, which they considered a way of turning their land into a corporate asset. Opting out makes them ineligible for financial reward from drilling.
So instead of a payout, the Gwich’in could be pushed out. If drilling were to happen in the refuge, it would happen in the very center of the Porcupine Caribou herd’s calving grounds, which could force them to establish a new migratory pattern. This herd of over 100,000 animals is a major food source for the Gwich’in, so if it routes away from their village, they have two choices: migrate with it or redefine the mainstay of their culture.
“80 percent of our diet is caribou,” said Demientieff.
The “hearing” was held at the Alliance Center community space in downtown Denver where a crowd of conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts filled the room. Walls were covered in Gwich’in flags — the tribe claiming their livelihood will be stolen by drilling — and the crowd could take a virtual reality tour of the refuge.
Denver may seem an odd place to host an event about protecting the Arctic Refuge, but Colorado Senator Cory Gardener is on the Senate Energy Panel and has been one of the vocal proponents of opening ANWR to drilling.
“Unfortunately, Senator Cory Gardner has been a proponent of drilling in the refuge, and was one of the swing, and decisive, votes to allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” said Adam Kolton, Executive Director of the AWL, in a phone interview. “It was chiefly disappointing,”
Powerhouse public land defenders, Patagonia and Protect Our Winters, were there, as well as representatives from the offices Rep. Diana Degette, Rep. Joe Neguse and Rep. Jason Crow, who are all co-sponsors of a recent House resolution that would delete a buried piece of the 2017 tax reform bill which opened the refuge to drilling.
Garrett Reppenhagen from the Vet Voice Foundation is a former sniper who did stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. He spoke about his time with the caribou herd in the refuge and about using public lands as therapy.
“I’ve seen more healing around a campfire than under the fluorescent light at the VA,” he said.
Proponents say drilling can be done safely, and would create jobs in Alaska and raise revenue for the federal and state governments. In the decades that the issue has been debated, polls have shown that the majority of Alaskans are for it, while the rest of the country is mostly against it.
Debate can be seen at the hyperlocal level as well. In the public narrative, though, the Gwich’in are against the drilling while the Inupiat village of Kaktovik is for it. Kaktovik is the only settlement within the refuge and would benefit economically if drilling were to happen.
"There’s an overwhelming amount of pressure to support oil and gas drilling…there are real needs that these communities have that are often met by oil and gas revenue,” said Kolton.
The current economic drive of the Kaktovik village is polar bear tourism, supported by the village’s designation as “Polar Bear Capitol of the United States.” But with a possible 10 billion barrels of crude oil on the table and the fate of polar bears in peril thanks to climate change accelerated by oil extraction — it’s not unreasonable for the village to feel the pressure.
While this saga is over 30 years in the making, the Trump administration has been more forceful than past administrations in pushing to drill, and the BLM is on track to begin leasing land as soon as this summer.