- Knik Arm Services is the second oil company to cancel its oil and gas lease for a tract of land in the largest wildlife reserve in America, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, following fierce opposition by the Indigenous Gwich’in committee and environmental groups.
- The Biden administration is intent on continuing Trump-era policies by supporting oil drilling in Alaska’s northern slope amid rising energy costs in the country – despite the president’s campaign promises to ban new oil and gas leases.
- Land in the refuge will still be available for lease to oil and gas companies in 2024, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management told Mongabay.
- Drilling and subsequent infrastructure development in the Arctic would have significant impacts on the tundra and would be disruptive to wildlife like caribou and polar bears.
The Gwich’in people of northern Alaska were disappointed when the Democratic-held U.S. Congress did not include a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – an area the Trump administration officially opened to future drilling in 2017. However, for decades now, the Gwich’in Steering Committee has taken the protection of the Arctic’s Coastal Plain into their own hands and mounted a fierce opposition against oil drilling in the region – resulting in the exit of the second oil company last month.
“These exits clearly demonstrate that companies recognize what we have known all along: drilling in the Arctic Refuge is not worth the economic risk and liability that results from development on sacred lands without the consent of Indigenous peoples,” said the Gwich’in Steering Committee in a press statement.
When the Gwich’in people learned that the Coastal Plain of the ANWR would be at risk from oil development during the second year of the Trump administration, they doubled down on their efforts to encourage banks and insurance companies to align with Indigenous rights and speak out against oil and gas development on the reserve. The Gwich’in people have been fighting for the protection of ANWR’s Coastal Plain since the 1980s after Congress passed a law that safeguarded only 80 percent of the reserve, leaving out an area critical to the livelihood of Indigenous groups in northern Alaska – its Coastal Plain. Lease auctions began in 2021.
According to the committee, 29 global banks have implemented a policy to decline underwriting oil and gas projects on the refuge and 14 international insurances companies have said they will not insure development projects in ANWR.
On August 16, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) canceled Knik Arm Services’ (KAS) 19,669-hectare (48,603-acre) lease in the Coastal Plain of ANWR after the company indicated it wanted to finally give up its tract just 19 months after purchasing its lease. BLM told Mongabay that it has since directed the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) to refund KAS to the tune of over $2 million.
KAS is the second company that asked BLM to cancel its oil and gas lease. In June, Regenerate Alaska, a subsidiary of Australia’s 88 Energy, also gave up its lease and requested a refund from BLM.
“If these leases had been developed, that likely would have included seismic testing, infrastructure like road and well pads, all of which are damaging to the tundra and disruptive to wildlife like caribou, polar bears and birds,” Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director at Environment America, told Mongabay.
Montgomery, whose organization advocates for protecting the refuge alongside the committee, says that the exits of the two oil companies are evidence that the lease sale in January 2021 was a flop.
Just days before Biden took office, the Trump administration held an auction for the right to drill in the refuge.
It was projected that $1.8 billion would be raised from two lease sales, but it only attracted $14.4 million in initial bids with nine of the 22 tracts of land leased — most of which were from state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA).
Alaskan officials have long supported oil drilling in the Arctic. In fact, it was Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski who sponsored the Senate bill to permit drilling on 809 hectares (2,000 acres) of the refuge. President Trump later introduced a budget that included drilling in the refuge to raise budget revenues for the state.
During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged to ban new oil and gas leases to combat climate change. Upon taking office, he issued a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas activity in the Arctic Refuge.
However, as the U.S. experiences an energy deficiency amid Russian sanctions and high energy prices pricking citizens, the Biden administration is supporting one oil and gas project in the region — despite pledges to scale back on Trump-era drilling projects.
Arctic land still for sale
ANWR spans 7.8 million hectares (19.3 million acres) — an area about the size of South Carolina — with of land, glaciers, alpine lakes and river deltas. It holds great cultural significance to the Native peoples of the region, including the Gwich’in tribe, who for generations have depended on the migratory porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) herd that births and calves in the Coastal Plain. ANWR also provides vital denning habitat for endangered polar bears.
ANWR has been at risk from oil development since 2017 when the Republican-held U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing drilling in the reserve despite objections of many Indigenous leaders and environmental groups.
State agency AIDEA still has oil leases in ANWR, and another lease sale is required by 2024 as per a provision in the 2017 Tax Act.
According to an email by Brian Hires, a spokesperson for BLM, these oil leases may be available for sale in the future now that they have been canceled.
Since July, the Gwich’in Steering Committee told Mongabay, they have been calling on Congress and President Biden to repeal the leasing mandate to prevent another lease sale and recognize the rights of Indigenous communities that are being overlooked in Alaska.
“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” said the committee in a statement to Mongabay. “Americans need to understand that what is happening to Arctic communities is coming to their regions — rising sea levels, economic impacts, erosion of beaches and shorelines. The Arctic refuge is where we must take a stand to address climate change.”
An estimated 1,400 gigatons of carbon is currently embedded in the world’s permafrost, mostly in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, according to scientists. But the prediction that the Earth could experience dramatic and very dangerous warming if a major proportion of existing permafrost has not been a risk that has deterred the Biden administration energy goals.
In fact, the release of an environmental analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior for the ConocoPhillips project known as Willow, for an oil development on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, is seen as the Biden administration signaling its support for oil drilling in the state’s northern slope, despite his campaign promise to ban new oil and gas leases.
This project was later blocked by a federal judge, who ruled that the environmental review did not sufficiently consider the project’s effect on climate change and wildlife.
The environmental impact study (EIS) of Willow said the project would have similar impacts like that of oil drilling in ANWR. According to the project’s revised EIS, oil extraction would devastate wetland and wildlife habitats such as caribou and polar bears. Permafrost will thaw. The comment period for the new drafted EIS ended on August 29, and whether this study will be approved is yet to be seen. In the meantime, ConocoPhillips said in its EIS that the company is in the process of acquiring other necessary permits that will kick-start the Willow project.
Protection of Coastal Plain and wildlife
But the fight against drilling in the Arctic is still ongoing. In September 2021, a group of conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to challenge a regulation they say would allow oil and gas operators to harass, harm and potentially kill polar bears on land and sea in Arctic Alaska.
“These lands are sacred, and we — the Gwich’in people — will never give up fighting to protect the Arctic Refuge,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a press statement.
Legislation is pending in both houses of Congress that would protect the refuge by designating its Coastal Plain as wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System while at the same time protecting subsistence rights of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples. This would prevent the Coastal Plain from being leased to oil and gas companies.
“Any legislation claiming to take climate action must include protecting sacred lands in the Arctic Refuge from drilling,” Demientieff said in a press statement.
Apart from KAS and Regenerate Alaska giving up their respective tracts, Chevron and Hilcorp have paid $10 million to Arctic Slope Regional Corporation to exit their legacy leases, which allowed for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Refuge in the 1980s.
The U.N. has thrice sounded alarms about the harm and human rights violations that proposed oil and gas development in the sacred Coastal Plain could pose to the Gwich’in.
According to Montgomery of Environment America, given the immense opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic, the AIDEA should now cancel their leases and leave the refuge to people and wildlife who rely on the Arctic refuge for survival.
“The effects of this are national but, on a local level, Indigenous communities in the Arctic —particularly the Gwich’in — are faced with an existential threat to their villages and culture,” said the committee.
The Gwich’in tribe is just one of many Indigenous groups in Alaska opposing an extractive industry. In the state’s southwest and remote Yukon-Kuskokwim region, three distinct Alaskan Native groups, the Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabascan people, are opposing plans to construct a 6,474-hectare (15,998 acres) open-pit gold mine near the Kuskokwim River watershed. This project is feared to have grave impacts on salmon habitats, traditional ways of life and the community’s health.
The Gwich’in committee says their fight against oil drilling in ANWR is not over. “While we gladly welcome the news of these exits, it is a reminder of how much more work is necessary to protect this sacred land, our animals and our people,” the committee said in a statement.
Banner Image: The Gwich’in First Nation cultural gathering of all the Gwich’in peoples from Yukon, Alaska, and Northwest Territories in in 2014. Here, people discuss important issues, such as threats from oil and gas development projects. Image courtesy of Mongabay.
Related listening from Mongabay podcast: We discuss several Indigenous-led conservation projects in the United States with Dr. Julie Thorstenson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, as well as American science journalist and author Michelle Nijhuis. Listen here: