An aerial view of Kaktovik, an Inupiat village on the North Slope of Alaska. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Alaska Native corporation welcomes action on bill to open lands to development

The Republican campaign to authorize energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is moving forward in Congress.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Wednesday approved legislation to open up the so-called 1002 Area of the refuge to drilling. Though every Democrat and Independent except one opposed the effort, the leader of the panel praised the final vote as bipartisan.

“Opening a small part of the non-wilderness 1002 Area for responsible energy development will create thousands of good jobs, keep energy affordable for families and businesses, ensure a steady long-term supply of American energy, generate new wealth, reduce the federal deficit, and strengthen our national security,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the committee, said in statement after a business meeting.

Alaska Natives who live and work in ANWR stand to gain from development. Even though they own the surface and subsurface rights to land there, they aren't allowed to exploit their own resources because of restrictions imposed on them by the federal government's designation of the refuge.

“A clear majority of the people of the North Slope support responsible development in ANWR; they should have the same rights to economic self-determination as people in the rest of the United States," Rex Rock, the president and chief executive officer of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native regional corporation, said following the vote. "I call on Congress to recognize that Native Alaskans are the best stewards of our lands and open up 1002.”

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

ASRC owns the subsurface rights to land within the 1002 area while Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, a village corporation, owns the surface rights. Development means jobs and revenues for the Inupiat people, who have called the North Slope home for tens of thousands of years.

The Gwich’in people, on the other hand, remain adamantly opposed to development. Their way of life revolves heavily around a caribou herd that migrates through ANWR.

“Oil drilling in the Arctic refuge is a direct attack on the Gwichin Nation and our way of life,” Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which represents Gwich’in communities in the United States and Canada, said earlier this month as the debate began.

The 1002 legislation still hurdles to clear before it becomes law. But Republicans are tying the package to H.Con.Res.71, a budget resolution, in hopes of making it easier to pass with just a majority of votes in the Senate, they hold 52 seats, compared to 48 for Democrats and Independents.

In the past, some members of the GOP — 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.

President Donald Trump and Secretary Ryan Zinke, the leader of the Department of the Interior, support development, although the department has cautioned that the first oil and gas lease sales probably won't occur for a few more years.

"We're serious about American #EnergyDominance," Zinke wrote in an October 25 post on Twitter.

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Notice:
Business Meeting to consider Reconciliation Legislation (November 15, 2017)

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