In debate over Alaska drilling, two indigenous representatives clash

At last week’s Senate hearing on ANWR, the sartorial choices between the Gwich’in (3rd from left) and Iñupiat (fourth from left) witnesses were clear.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a five-hour hearing on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Established in 1960 by President Eisenhower, ANWR has witnessed decades of clashes between environmentalists and industry supporters, Alaskans and non-Alaskans, and Juneau and Washington, D.C over proposals to open the refuge to drilling. The crux of the matter is whether to allow petroleum exploration and production in the non-wilderness Area 1002, the coastal plain situated on Alaska’s North Slope that washes into the Arctic Ocean. This area may hold between 5.7 and 16 billion barrels of oil – about 8.7 percent of the United States’ estimated undiscovered, recoverable oil.

While the Obama administration was a staunch protector of ANWR, the Trump administration has proposed lifting restrictions on energy exploration in Alaska. It also is eyeing a potential $1 billion in revenues from ANWR lease sales to help pay for a $1 trillion tax cut. Since Congress needs to approve any exploration in Area 1002, that’s why the Senate was holding a hearing on Thursday, inviting 12 witnesses to testify.

There’s a lot more than just oil in the tundra. Approximately 241 people, mostly Iñupiat, live in the village of Kaktovik, the only one in ANWR. The nearly 20-million acre refuge is also home to a rich array of wildlife including polar bears, Dall sheep, and, notably, the Porcupine Caribou herd. The Gwich’in people, who reside in 15 small villages stretching from northern Alaska to northwest Canada, rely on the caribou for their subsistence way of life. Many Gwich’in are deeply worried that oil exploration in Area 1002 would irreversibly impact the caribou’s calving grounds, bringing with that the possibility of food insecurity for the Gwich’in. During the hearing, Gwich’in Council International Board of Directors member Samuel Alexander stated, “We as Gwich’in see the desire to open up the refuge as an attack on us, and on the Porcupine Caribou Herd on which we depend.” Alexander provided some of the most eloquent testimony of the morning, in stark contrast to the many politicians who struggled to even pronounce the name of his people.

The more northerly living Iñupiat, who traditionally rely on marine mammals like whales and seals for subsistence rather than caribou, tend to support ANWR drilling. In no small part, that is because their native regional corporation, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, is the only one that owns land within ANWR: some 92,000 surface and subsurface acres in the Coastal Plain, in fact. Those oil-rich lands, held in conjunction with the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, surround the village of Kaktovik.

Oilfields and pipelines on Alaska’s vast North Slope. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Since the 1970s, the Iñupiat have profited handsomely from oil and gas development in the North Slope, and their corporations wish to continue expanding their activities into places like ANWR. Matthew Rexford, Tribal Administrator for the Native Village of Kaktovik and president of the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, who testified as a witness during the hearing, explained in his written statement:

“The oil and gas industry supports our communities by providing jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure investments, has built our schools, hospitals, and has moved our people away from third-world living conditions – we refuse to go backward in time.”

Since its incorporation in 1972, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation has become one of America’s 200 biggest private companies and one of Alaska’s largest private landowners. Last year, it generated $2.4 billion in revenues. While ASRC still, in theory, keeps Inupiat interests at the heart of its operations, its size, structure, and activities clearly distinguish it from other indigenous groups. Even though the Gwich’in have a corporation, its operations are nowhere near the level of ASRC, whose subsidiaries won multimillion dollar contracts to support the war in Iraq.

Thus, the clash between the Gwich’in and the Iñupiat over ANWR drilling is more than just a disagreement between two indigenous groups. In a way, it is also about one indigenous non-profit organization versus an indigenous corporation. Alexander, the Gwich’in Council International representative, forcefully argued,

“You’re gonna hear Alaska Native Corporation representatives coming up here and talking about responsible development, and I just want to make it clear while I have the time to do such that Alaska Native Corporations are not tribes. They are not tribes. They do not have a traditional language. Their purpose is profit. Our purpose as Gwich’in is to protect our traditional way of life and live that traditional life in an honorable way. (His testimony starts around 1:06 in the archived webcast).

Even the sartorial choices of Alexander and Rexford, the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation president, reflected their individual differences. While the Gwich’in representative wore a traditional vest over a shirt and tie, the Iñupiat representative was dressed in a suit. Alexander was representing Gwich’in Council International, a non-profit established in 1999 to represent the interests of Canadian and American Gwich’in at the Arctic Council. Yet the Canadian Gwich’in, too, have their own development corporation, which the Iñupiat and other Alaska politicians have taken pains to point out over the years. The Gwich’in Development Corporation is the majority owner of an oilfield services company, while other Gwich’in tribal organizations officially support development of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, a proposed $7 billion pipeline that would export gas from the Canadian Northwest.

Perhaps most ironically, in 1984, Alaska Gwich’in offered nearly 2 million acres for lease to oil companies, but no resources were found. The below undated information brief published by Arctic Power, a non-profit that supports ANWR drilling, sheds light on the seeming hypocrisy of the Gwich’in, who are against drilling in ANWR but pro-drilling on their own lands.

What needs to be remembered, however, is that no single indigenous group speaks with a single voice. Just as you would never expect all Californians to be unanimously opposed to oil drilling, the Gwich’in, too, have diverse views, as do the Iñupiat. Caroline Cannon, an Iñupiat leader and former mayor of the village of Point Hope, won a major environmental prize a few years ago for her work in opposing offshore oil drilling. Similarly, some tribal organizations are in favor of the activity while some are against. Alexander clearly opposes ANWR drilling for reasons that may not apply to all Gwich’in, but certainly to some, and which may even hold true for some Iñupiat. Yet both indigenous spokesmen used phrases like “We as Gwich’in” or “our people,” rhetoric which occludes the diversity of views among indigenous communities.

The following statement by Alexander exemplifies this tendency. In contrast to Rexford, who sees a direct link between more oil and better public services, Alexander offered:

“I hear this talk about development all the time. We need to develop this, we need to develop that. What I think we need is a little bit of understanding of the sustainability of the life that we live as Gwich’in, alright? We’re not sitting here asking for anything. We’re not saying we need hospitals, we need schools, we need all these things, we’re not saying, give us money. What we’re saying is, let us live as Gwich’in.”

The real question though is what does it mean to live as Gwich’in, or as Iñupiat, for that matter? It is not simply one thing, nor is it even a simple choice between “traditional” and “modern.” An Inupiat who works in the oil industry, for instance, might use his wages to buy a new motor for his boat to go whaling, or a mother might go to the grocery store to buy eggs and milk to supplement traditional foods.

sealskin boat Barrow Utqiaġvik
Women in Utqiaġvik making the outer skin of a boat by stitching sealskin pieces together with caribou intestine thread. The men are working on the frame of the boat. All of this work is taking place in a very modern cultural center, which was likely funded by oil royalties. Photo: Mia Bennett.
Grocery store in Utqiaġvik, Alaska.
A woman dressed in a traditional parka shopping at a grocery store in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

To wit, Rexford, addressing the committee, explained that the Iñupiat see oil and gas as just one of the many resources that they rely on. In this sense, even oil can be reimagined as a subsistence resource.

“The bowhead whale, caribou, Dall sheep, muskoxen and the fish of the region are a vital food source to the Kaktovik-miut (people). Another of those natural resources is oil and gas – and lots of it. We rely on the bounty of the land and find sustenance within ANWR.”

This description of the bounties of the land opens up a philosophical debate into what natural resources are, along with which ones governments should permit indigenous peoples to develop. If indigenous peoples own their land and can, say, hunt caribou or polar bears on it (within certain limits), should they also be allowed to drill for oil?

So far, with ANWR, the U.S. has said no. Rexford lamented,

“Since the mid-1980s, our people have fought unsuccessfully to open our homelands to responsible exploration and development…Kaktovik-miut and the Arctic Iñupiat will not become conservation refugees. We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence, and no hope for the future of our people.”

What this all boils down to is a fight not between two indigenous peoples, but between capitalism and the subsistence economy. I hesitate to even use the phrase “sustainable development” because that concept implies ceaseless growth. Alexander posed a question that illuminates the fundamental debate at the heart of the ANWR clash, which is over whether society needs to keep developing, even if the environment can be somewhat protected. He asked,

“What does economic development actually mean? It’s not a recognition that the subsistence economy is a real thing.”

If we are going to have more and better schools and hospitals and avoid “going backward” or even just remaining in the present, then we do need to keep developing, whether that’s by getting resources out of the ground or generating economic activity in some other way. Even Alexander, who adamantly supports subsistence lifestyles, is a professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Like many Gwich’in, he is also a veteran.

What all of this suggests is that indigenous peoples wear many hats, just like everyone else. People, both native and non-native, feel a need to go back to the land from time to time, too, and they probably don’t want it to be spoiled exactly on the lands that are important for them, whether its for subsistence or recreation. During the hearing, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) waxed poetic about his 70-mile backpacking trip with his wife. While he probably wouldn’t want to see pipelines and oil patches stretching across the Rockies in his home state of Colorado while backpacking, development – and that includes oil extraction – has to happen somewhere if society is going to keep having new and better things. For many Gwich’in, they don’t want development happening on the calving and grazing lands of their caribou, and some, like Alexander, might be ideologically opposed to the idea of development, full stop. But many people probably do still want some form of progress to continue, including the many – but not all – Iñupiat who want drilling on their homeland, and who feel they have a right to develop it as they see fit.

The redrawing of battle lines over ANWR complicates typical notions of fights over development. Armchair readers and activists might think of the fight over ANWR’s future as a black and white debate between environmentalists and Native Americans facing off against profiteering multinational oil companies. As the heated hearing in D.C. elucidated, the story is rather one of Gwich’in traditionalists, who have environmentalists on their side, versus Iñupiat executives and developmentalists, who have Juneau politicians and Texas oilmen on theirs. 

Drilling in Arctic Refuge to close deficit? Let's be real.

The White House's Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.
The White House’s Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.

The White House’s budget will be delivered to Congress today. Called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the 62-page document proposes the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Selling leases in Area 1002, as it’s known, would begin in 2022/2023, providing $900 million in revenue, which would help close the federal deficit. The budget estimates drawing in another $900 million from a second leasing round in 2026/2027. In total, the Trump budget proclaims in an associated document, called “Major Savings and Reforms,” that opening ANWR to drilling would reduce the federal deficit by $1.8 billion.

The “Major Savings and Reforms” to be made by drilling in ANWR.

The White House proposes to share revenues “equally with the State of Alaska.” The $900 million or so that would come in the next ten years, however, will just be a drop in the bucket for a state that has faced year after year of severe budget deficits since the price of oil crashed in 2014. This year, the budget deficit was estimated to be $2.92 billion. If faced with a worst-case scenario where an approximately $3 billion budget deficit becomes the norm for the next ten years, $900 million looks like an even paltrier amount in comparison. Revenues and royalties could be generated once commercial drilling began in ANWR, but that would take years. In the meantime, Alaska could have been striving to develop alternative industries like wind and tidal energy rather than banking on potential profits from opening up an ecologically sensitive area to drilling.

Obama and Trump’s budgets compared

A comparison of Obama’s 2017 budget with Trump’s 2018 budget reveals that the former mentions climate change 36 times, while the latter only mentions it once.

As the potential opening of ANWR indicates, the replacement of Barack Obama with Donald Trump in the White House has caused federal priorities in the Arctic to shift dramatically. Comparing Obama’s final budget, for fiscal year 2017, with Trump’s 2018 budget further illustrates those contrasts.

The Obama budget highlighted topics like “Coastal Resilience,” explaining, “The Budget also provides the Denali Commission—an independent Federal agency created to facilitate technical assistance and economic development in Alaska—with $19 million, including $5 million to coordinate Federal, State, and tribal assistance to communities to develop and implement solutions to address the impacts of climate change.” The Obama budget also sought to invest $100 million across a number of additional agencies to deal with climate change while allocating $150 million for a Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic to tackle related problems.

Issues like improving American Indian and Alaska Native access to healthcare were also prioritized under the Obama budget. One line-item for 2017 estimated that standardizing the definition of who qualifies as American Indian and Alaska Native under the Affordable Care Act would increase the budget deficit by $520 million over the next decade. While the previous White House was spending money to try to improve healthcare for vulnerable and historically disadvantaged populations, the current White House wants to “save money” by cutting billions of dollars in funding to the Medicaid healthcare program for low-income individuals and food stamps.

Climate change or “other change”?

Another stark contrast is that the Obama 2017 budget mentioned climate change 36 times. The Trump budget mentions it zero times.

That should come as no surprise seeing that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hardly dared utter the phrase while speaking at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks earlier this month. Reading stiffly from a set of prepared remarks, Tillerson said, “And finally, the Council has strengthened resilience at the national and local levels in the face of environmental and other change.” When the nation’s top diplomat won’t even call a spade a spade, the prospects for agreement between the U.S. with the other Arctic Council member states, let alone the rest of the climate-concerned international community, are dim.

(For fun, you can compare Tillerson’s stilted six-minute remarks in Fairbanks with former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 23-minute off-the-cuff speech at Iqaluit two years prior:)

Congress Considers New Bill on ANWR Drilling

Dr. Douglas Brinkley and Rep. Don Young spar during a Congressional hearing

For fifty years, the U.S. has debated drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton declared 8.9 million acres in northeast Alaska to be a federally protected area, called the Alaska National Wildlife Range. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), setting aside almost 100 million acres of public lands. Nearly one third of the protected areas was declared wilderness. Numerous national parks, monuments, preserves, and wildlife refuges were created or expanded by the Act. Senators Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel opposed turning over such a large amount of area to the National Park Service, claiming that it would harm the prospects for economic development in Alaska. While the decision was ultimately unpopular, the creation of numerous national park areas served to increase tourism in the state. Still, Gravel lost his seat in the next election, as constituents blamed him for the decision. Furthermore, tourism to ANWR has not increased. The refuge is extremely remote, with no roads leading to it. Only about 250 visitors come to the park every year (“elitists,” as Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) calls them, as we’ll see later).

While the House voted to declare the entire refuge as wilderness, the Senate differed. In the end, eight million acres of ANWR were designated as wilderness, while 1.5 million acres of coastal plain were not. Section 1002 of ANILCA called for the following in the coastal plain: a “comprehensive and continuing inventory and assessment of the fish and wildlife resources of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; an analysis of the impacts of oil and gas exploration development, and production, and to authorize exploratory activity within the coastal plain in a manner that avoids significant adverse effects on the fish and wildlife and other resources.”

A baseline study was completed by the Department of the Interior in 1987. A more recent report written in 2001 by ANWR staff is a more accurate reflection of current conditions in the park for oil and drilling, yet it is still ten years old. The USGS estimates that between 3 and 10.4 billion barrels of oil are economically recoverable at $30 [1]. With oil at almost $100 a barrel, even more oil is likely economically recoverable. Yet still, there would hardly be enough oil to fuel annual American consumption, which in 2007 totaled 15.1 billion barrels. The amount of oil is also not big enough to impact world oil prices.

USGS Chart with curves showing recoverable oil

People in favor of drilling in ANWR strive to draw a contrast between the coastal plain, also known as “Section 1002,” and the Brooks Mountains in the southern part of the refuge. Drilling would occur on the coastal plain, which they paint as a place that is already developed and no longer pristine. The town of Kaktovik sits on the coastal plain, and one exploratory drill was made nearby in 1985, though it was later plugged and abandoned.

Yet as a counterpoint, the USGS says:

“The 1002 Area is critically important to the ecological integrity of the whole Arctic Refuge, providing essential habitats for numerous internationally important species such as the Porcupine Caribou herd and polar bears. The compactness and proximity of a number of arctic and subarctic ecological zones in the Arctic Refuge provides for greater plant and animal diversity than in any other similar sized land area on Alaska’s North Slope.”

ANWR is the largest national wildlife refuge in the U.S.. The USGS also claims, “Such a broad spectrum of diverse habitats occurring within a single protected unit is unparalleled in North America, and perhaps in the entire circumpolar north.” [2] To the east, Canada has three neighboring protected areas. The two national parks, Ivvavik and Vuntut, are prohibited from oil exploration.

Much of the rest of Alaska’s North Slope is already leased for oil drilling. Over the past ten years, the number of Alaskans in favor of opening up ANWR to drilling has stood around or over 70%. President Obama is opposed to drilling in ANWR. However, though he has not opened up the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to more drilling, he has approved more lease sales for offshore drilling in the Arctic. Two new leases sales are planned in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in 2015 and 2016, respectively [4]. Another lease sale is planned to take place in 2013 for Alaska’s Cook Inlet, in the south-central part of the state.

Despite Obama’s opposition, Congress seems to be moving closer to opening Section 1002 to drilling. Representative Doc Hastings (R-Washington) and Don Young (R-Alaska) have cosponsored the “Alaskan Energy for American Jobs Act,” which has been referred to the Referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. It would repeal Section 1003 of ANILCA, which makes prohibits drilling for oil and gas in Section 1002.

One of the hearings on the bill got quite heated. Last Friday, Dr. Douglas Brinkley, a history professor and expert in Alaskan history, was testifying in Congress in favor of keeping ANWR closed to drilling. Representative  Young was at the hearing, and he did not like what Dr. Brinkley had to say. He treated him with disdain, and Dr. Brinkley did not take it lightly. While he sincerely appreciates the wilderness that is ANWR, Rep. Young seems not to. He said,

“The Arctic Plain is really nothing. You say it’s not the heart — it is not the heart. It is not the heart. It is part of the most deficit part of the area. And what hurts me the most as you sit there in the Rice University, when the people support drilling for their good and for the good of this nation, as a college professor in an ivory tower you can go up there and camp and spend your time. And I hope you spend a lot of money.”

The debate on Arctic drilling has sunk to new lows. While it isn’t that surprising that the most vocal champions of preserving Alaska’s wilderness come from the outside – after all, they do not stand to gain economically from drilling there – it is sad that Alaska’s sole congressional representative will not even listen to opposing views.


[1] “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 1002 Area, Petroleum Assessment, 1998, Including Economic Analysis,” USGS

[2] Potential Impacts of Proposed Oil and Gas Development on the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain: Historical Overview and Issues of Concern,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

[3] “Alaskans Strongly Support ANWR Development,” Jobs and Energy for America

[4] Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012-2017,” Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

News Links

“Historian gets into it with Don Young during Congressional hearing,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

“A video of Rep. Don Young every American should see,”