A herd of caribou is seen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Republican campaign for Arctic refuge drilling puts Alaska Native divisions on display again

Alaska Natives remain as divided as ever as the Trump administration and Republicans revive one of the most controversial policy debates in history: energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A lengthy hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday exposed the differences that pitted tribal governments against Native corporations more than a decade ago. But the passage of time hasn’t swayed any of the key players, with the Gwich’in people still determined to stop oil development on lands owned by their Inupiat neighbors.

“We are trying to drill more oil, pump out more pollutants, to address climate change and the impact that it has,” Samuel Alexander, a citizen of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribe, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during the four-hour affair. “And that is just insanity to me.”

“And it’s insanity to the Gwich'in people — we don’t understand that,” said Alexander, who believes drilling threatens the very existence of his people because a caribou herd they depend on for subsistence migrates through ANWR.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources November 2, 2017

Despite the strong sentiments, Alexander was outnumbered by supporters of development. Four other Native witnesses — three of them representing Native corporations — said the Inupiat people should be able to reap the benefits of the resources on their own lands, which were included in ANWR without their consent.

“Our people are the indigenous inhabitants of the region and have used the resources it has blessed us with for more than 10,000 years,” said Matthew Rexford, the administrator for the Native Village of Kaktovik, a federally recognized tribe, describing the animals in and around his community in the refuge.

“Another one of those natural resources is oil and gas — and lots of it,” added Rexford, who also serves as president of Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, a Native village corporation that stands to benefit from development because it owns the surface rights on lands where drilling could occur.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a Native regional corporation, also sees a bright future in ANWR. The firm, which boasted $2.4 billion in revenues in 2016, owns subsurface rights on more than 92,000 acres in the North Slope of the refuge, meaning it could sell the oil and gas there.

But Richard Glenn, an executive vice president for the corporation, said development was about more than just money. ASRC’s revenues fund programs in several Inupiat villages, he noted, so they benefit tribal citizens, in addition to shareholders.

“I’m a tribal member,” said Richard Glenn, who is Inupiat and active in his village community. “I was particularly stung by the ranking member’s comments that said she didn’t see tribal members.”

Glenn was referring to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), the top Democrat on the committee and a former chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. During her opening remarks, she said “tribal members” were largely being left out of the ANWR debate.

“Maybe she just didn't find enough tribal members that agree with her position,” Glenn shot back.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Full Committee Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Potential for Oil and Gas Exploration in the 1002 Area

The sharp barb reflected the highly partisan nature of the hearing. Republicans on the committee, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman, almost exclusively directed their questions to witnesses who favored development in hopes of making their case even stronger.

“This is not drilling rhetoric,” said Murkowski, citing the decades of development that have occurred in her state. “This is not theoretical. This is actual application. We are making it happen and I think that’s what our colleagues need to appreciate and recognize.”

Republicans weren't the only ones with a narrow focus. Democrats pointed most of their queries to the smaller number of anti-drilling witnesses, like Alexander, as they sought to undermine the need for fossil fuel development.

“What world are we living in?” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who was a Democratic candidate for president in 2016. “What are you going to say to your children and your grandchildren?”

The Trump administration’s representative at the hearing was Greg Sheehan, the principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within the Department of the Interior. Though he conveyed strong support for development — his boss, Secretary Ryan Zinke, frequently refers to it as “energy dominance” — he said drilling is still several years away, assuming Congress opens up ANWR for oil and gas lease sales.

“Drilling would be far out” in time, said Sheehan, who joined the Trump team in June.

A map of Alaska North's Slope shows the "1002 Area" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where oil development could occur. Native owned lands are shaded orange. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

The last major push for ANWR took place during the George W. Bush administration, when Republicans focused on development in the so-called "1002 Area" of the refuge rather than look at ways for the Native corporations to develop their own lands. When their efforts failed, they blamed environmental groups and Democrats, although some also lashed out at the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which represents Gwich’in communities in the United States and Canada and has been a fierce lobbying force against drilling.

“I’m here at the direction of my elders,” Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of committee, said on Wednesday, in advance of the hearing. “Oil drilling in the Arctic refuge is a direct attack on the Gwichin Nation and our way of life.”

Republicans are hoping to avoid any embarrassing defections on the issue by authorizing development through the budget process. Their thinking is that it will only take a simple majority of votes in the Senate to pass a pro-drilling legislative vehicle. In the past, some members of their party — notably Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a former two-term chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs — have jumped ship when development required a higher threshold of 60 votes.

A pro-development vote in the House, where Republicans hold a stronger majority, is not seen as a major obstacle.

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Notice:
Full Committee Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Potential for Oil and Gas Exploration in the 1002 Area (November 2, 2017)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Alaska Native leaders and executives testify on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (November 1, 2017)
Trump administration moves to open Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling (September 18, 2017)
Secretary Zinke plans to work with tribes on drilling push in Alaska (May 25, 2017)
Trending in News
More Headlines