The Sadlerochit River in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo: David Houseknecht / U.S. Geological Survey

Trump administration puts tribes at center of another energy development debate

The Donald Trump administration is moving forward with yet another controversial energy development initiative, giving Democrats and tribes a new opportunity to criticize the president's public lands failings and the impact on the first Americans.

On Monday, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the start of an oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) of Alaska. Though he acknowledged that drilling might not occur for several more years, he called it a "major step" for the federal agency with the most trust and treaty responsibilities in Indian Country.

"President Trump's leadership brought three decades of inaction to an end when he signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, requiring these vast energy resources be developed, contributing to America’s future economic prosperity and energy security," Bernhardt said on a conference call with reporters in the morning.

And while Bernhardt was optimistic about future leasing, going so far as to suggest a sale might occur before the end of the year, he admitted that the Trump administration isn't releasing key information for potential developers. Whether in fact there are "vast" oil and gas deposits in ANWR is a huge unknown, because the Department of the Interior has little understanding at this point due to a lack of technological studies in the region.

“I think a lot of people will bid for leases without seismic data,” Bernhardt said after Indianz.Com asked about the willingness of energy companies to jump in blind, particularly in the era of COVID-19, where uncertainty is the name of the game.

With the announcement coming on the opening day of the Democratic National Convention, political rivals seized on the lack of clarity as another sign of the Trump administration's willingness to make major policy decisions that place corporate interests above those of Americans. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues, said Trump's decision was divorced from reality.

“Oil and gas companies are closing wells to keep prices up, the Arctic is literally on fire due to climate change, millions of Americans are facing foreclosure, and unemployment is the worst we’ve seen since the Great Depression – and the president’s bizarre version of economic relief is to give Big Oil full access to a wilderness where the Gwich’in community needs healthy caribou for survival," Grijalva said in a news release, referring to the tribes whose whose way of life is tied to ANWR.

"Anyone who cares about the fate of our country and our planet should reject not just this announcement, but the spiteful, selfish philosophy that got us to this sorry place," said Grijalva, who was scheduled to participate in an Indian Country kick-off event for the Democratic convention on Monday evening.

The Native Village of Venetie, the Arctic Village Council and the Venetie Village Council also condemned the decision, saying they are "unequivocally opposed to development" in ANWR's Coastal Plain, home to the caribou herd that impacts just about every aspect of their cultures. The three Gwich’in tribes are working "tirelessly" to protect their people from the threat of COVID-19 and one leader called the oil and lease program a distraction from those efforts.

“The Coastal Plain is one of the most important natural, cultural, and subsistence resources to the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Venetie and to the Gwich’in people as a whole," said First Chief Margorie Gemmill of the Native Village of Venetie. "The cultural identity of the Gwich’in people as caribou people is intertwined with the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving areas in the Coastal Plain. Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates, and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual, and subsistence impacts on our people."

"This process must be stopped," Gemmill added. "We call on all our allies to join the Gwich’in in opposing this attack on our way of life.”

But the Iñupiat people who live inside ANWR welcomed the record of decision from the Bureau of Land Management. Through their Native corporations -- one of whom counts Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, a Trump political appointee, as its most prominent shareholder -- the residents of the region stand to gain financially from natural resource development in the Coastal Plain.

“This is certainly an encouraging development when it comes to the economic future of the communities across Alaska’s North Slope, the state of Alaska as well as the rest of the nation,” said Rex A. Rock Sr., president and chief executive officer of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the wealthiest Native business entity. “This area was set aside by Congress some 40 years ago because of its potential for holding significant reserves of oil and gas, and I look forward to the Coastal Plain living up to its promise of becoming an economic driver, both inside as well as outside of our region."

Very encouraging news today from the Bureau of Land Management.

Posted by Arctic Slope Regional Corporation on Monday, August 17, 2020

Prior to being confirmed as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Sweeney vowed to recuse herself from any decisions affecting Arctic Slope, which had employed her as a vice president with a salary of about $1 million a year. But she declined to get rid of her stock in the corporation, allowing her to benefit from from any financial gains that might be realized after she joined the Trump administration.

Still, BLM's decision on Monday did not overtly bear any influence from Sweeney. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was not listed as a "cooperating" agency in the 88-page document, which Bernhardt characterized as all but inevitable, based on the administration's reading of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

When asked whether a new president -- Democrat Joe Biden for instance -- could undo the leasing program, Bernhardt said the 2017 law offers no other alternative.

"Here's the reality, Congress has mandated these lease sales and so they have to go forward in some regard," Bernhardt said. "They can't simply unduly delay and that is a reality that Congress created."

Bernhardt, who previously served as Solicitor at Interior during the George W. Bush administration, mentioned that he has experience with issues affecting agency discretion. So does the highest-ranking official at the BLM, William Perry Pendley, a controversial figure in Indian Country for his own legal work affecting development of tribal territories.

As president of Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative-leaning non-profit for 30 years, Pendley represented an energy firm that wanted to drill for oil and gas in Badger Two Medicine, an area in Montana held sacred by the Blackfeet Nation. The leasing program in that region was approved more than 30 years ago during the Ronald Reagan administration but the tribe was never formally consulted before the decision was made.

While other developers willingly stepped away out of respect for the tribe's interests, Pendley kept fighting on behalf of Solonex LLC, which owned one lease in Badger Two Medicine. After decades of back and forth, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in June upheld the Barack Obama administration's cancellation of the lease, holding that a claim of "undue delay" was not enough for the firm to prevail against the agency's discretion.

As head of BLM, Pendley has been advancing another controversial energy development program affecting the first Americans. The agency has moved forward with lease sales on ancestral lands in New Mexico over the objections of Pueblo and Navajo tribes, whose ancestors lived there for generations and where their citizens still go for ceremonies.

"This cultural landscape is a sacred place integral to the identity and ongoing cultural practices of Pueblo people," observed J. Michael Chavarria, Governor of the Pueblo of Santa Clara Pueblo and Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Govenors. "It is not only the home of our ancestors -- the eye of the wheel from which the Pueblos migrated -- and rich in cultural resources, but it is also a living place we continue to interact with through song, prayer, and pilgrimage."

But while the Trump administration might be able to claim a policy advancement with the ANWR program, it stumbled with Pendley. His nomination to lead the BLM was withdrawn by the White House on Friday, following complaints about his handling of matters like drilling in the areas surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

“William Perry Pendley was always a dangerous choice to lead an agency charged with managing and protecting our public lands, yet President Trump still put him up for the nomination," said Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna who is one of the first two Native women in Congress.

"So we rang the alarm and pressed Pendley in committee about his work to dismantle public lands and ignorant attitudes toward Native Americans," said Haaland, who serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, the first Native person in the leadership post.

Besides defending the exploitation of Blackfeet territory in Montana, Mountain States Legal Foundation fought against voting rights for tribal citizens in Wyoming and against tribal sovereignty in Montana. The firm also opposed protections for tribal sacred sites in Arizona, California and Utah.

"Though this is good news today," Haaland said of Pendley's withdrawal on Friday, "we’re still fighting an administration that wants to cut off large swaths of our public lands to sell them to the highest bidder, line their friends’ pockets, and put polluters over people. I will continue holding this administration accountable for using their position to enrich themselves, refusing to consult with tribes, and gutting protections meant to keep our families safe from pollution and preserve our natural treasures.”

President Trump had only sent Pendley's nomination to the U.S. Senate on June 30, shortly after announcing him to be director of the BLM. No reason was given for the abrupt withdrawal.

"The withdrawal of William Perry Pendley’s nomination would be good news for all who value public lands, conservation, and tribal sovereignty," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "It’s hard to imagine a worse pick for BLM than someone who doesn’t believe in the very idea of conservation, who has a clear history of racism toward Native Americans, and who spearheaded a relocation effort that is a transparent effort to undermine the very agency he would oversee."

Pendley, however, will remain in charge of the BLM since no one else has been nominated for the post and it's not likely anyone will be anytime soon. He first joined the Trump administration in July 2019, as the agency was working on the ANWR and Chaco Culture leasing programs.

"He should not be allowed to continue in this role in an acting, unconfirmed capacity," Udall said of Pendley. "It’s time for DOI stand up for our public lands and our trust and treaty obligations to tribes.”

The 2017 fourth quarter issue of Uqalugaaŋich features a photo of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation celebrating with President Donald Trump at the White House following the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017.

Through two entities -- Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation -- the Iñupiat people own the surface and subsurface rights to about 92,000 acres in the so-called 1002 Area of ANWR. With the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Congress tailored the lease program for this area, which Arctic Slope estimates contains an 10.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil, a figure based on a mean estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey from the late 1980s.

Arctic Slope also owns and operates companies that provide services to the energy industry. The firm reported revenues of $2.5 billion in 2015 but, more recently, the coronavirus has taken a big hit on its bottom line in the last few months.

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