Vuntut Gwitchin gov't and Gwich'in council denounce U.S. steps in ANWR lease sale

The Vuntut Gwitchin Government and Gwich’in Tribal Council are denouncing the U.S. government’s step forward in the lease sale of “sacred lands” and critical caribou habitat and are calling for “allies” to help push back.

Indigenous leaders calling for allies to help push back

In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

The Vuntut Gwitchin Government and Gwich'in Tribal Council are denouncing the U.S. government's step forward in the lease sale of "sacred lands" and critical caribou habitat in the Arctic and are calling for "allies" to help push back.

On Monday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued a call for nominations for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, a process which asks oil and gas companies where they want to drill in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. 

According to the land management bureau website, the bureau conducts annual lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a large swath of land west of the refuge. It says the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge is "highly prospective for oil and gas resources," with an estimated 4.25 and 11.8 billion barrels of "technically recoverable oil."

The Vuntut Gwitchin Government and Gwich'in Tribal Council said in a joint news release Tuesday that the U.S. used "undemocratic methods" to "slip" a provision within the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and it completed "an unlawful" environmental impact statement process.

Next step to 'destructive drilling' in refuge

The groups say this move is just the U.S. administration's next step toward opening the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge to "destructive drilling."

The Indigenous groups are now making calls for partners, allies and friends to "stand with us, the entire Gwich'in Nation and the Porcupine caribou," against the plans.

In the news release, they say it's "another opportunity to tell the [Bureau of Land Management], and any company who might be willing to pursue leases, why drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) cannot proceed and what will happen if it does."

The groups say they're anticipating the bureau to release a notice of lease sale and detailed statement of sale at least 30 days before holding a lease sale.

"The Trump Administration is barrelling forward towards a lease sale in the sacred lands of our Nation while on its last legs," said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, in a statement.

Tizya-Tramm added that while "no amount of money can ever justify what is taking place here," it's been shown repeatedly that drilling in the refuge has been driven by politics and not economics.

"Investors representing trillions of dollars in assets and dozens of global banks have recognized this and have made it clear that drilling these lands is bad business," Tizya-Tramm said.

Porcupine caribou in Ivvavik National Park. Indigenous governments are asking for support to oppose lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Robert Postma Photography)

Environmental and social costs outweigh benefits

Tizya-Tramm says companies willing to participate in the lease sale "knows that their intentions to destroy these lands are against the rights of the Gwich'in Nation, the will of the American public, the recommendations of all levels of Canadian Governments and the views of the president-elect."

In a statement, Grand Chief Ken Smith of the Gwich'in Tribal Council says the council has "continuously" expressed that the environmental and social costs of any development in the refuge "significantly outweigh any potential economic benefit that may result."

Smith added that the council views the lease sale as a "desperate last-ditch" attempt by the Trump Administration to threaten the Gwich'in way of life.

"The sacred grounds of the ANWR need to be protected for the sake of the caribou and our people. We are expecting new president-elect Biden to follow through on his election promise to protect this area and stand with the Gwich'in against this proposed violation of our Indigenous and human rights," Smith said.

"The Gwich'in of the Northwest Territories stand with our allies to vehemently oppose any and all plans for development in the ANWR."

Smith says in the interim, the council will be working with its partners to "pursue all regulatory and legal options" to ensure their voices are "heard, and these lands are protected for future generations."

According to a newsletter Tuesday from The Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign, seismic testing to identify resources underground would have "catastrophic effects on the biological ecosystem." 

"The Call for Nominations demonstrates that President Trump and Interior are further disregarding the serious biological, cultural, and climate impacts fossil fuel extraction will have in the rapidly-warming Arctic," the newsletter reads in part. 

Bernadette Demientieff, with the Gwich'in Steering Committee, says they're fighting on "every level" of government but that they aren't giving up.

"We're going to fight this every step of the way. We don't have the option of giving up," Demientieff said.

"We come from strong people. And we continue to follow the direction of our elders."

The refuge is home to Indigenous communities and wildlife populations including caribou and polar bears.

Demientieff says the group has a lot of support on both sides of the border. She said the obligation for the committee to protect the refuge is not only "to our people but to our animals as well."

'Big push back' for companies, says analyst

In August, when the leasing program was approved, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, said the establishment of the program marked a "new chapter in American energy independence," during a conference call with reporters.

"Years of inaction have given away to an informed and determined plan to responsibly tap ANWR's energy potential for the American people for generations to come," Bernhardt said.

In recent months, however, several big U.S. banks, along with the Royal Bank of Canada, have said they would not finance oil and gas projects in the Arctic region.

Doug Matthews, an oil and gas analyst, who has spent his career working in that field for the Government of the Northwest Territories, told CBC he isn't sure companies will necessarily be leaping at the potential opportunity.

He says it isn't known exactly how much oil is in the refuge.

"The price of oil is down … there's bound to be court challenges, so I'm not sure companies will want to stick their head above the parapet on this," he said.

It's also possible companies could see backlash for expressing interest in development in those lands.

"There will be a big push back not only because this is perhaps, unneeded oil, but this is pretty pristine wilderness, this is important stuff in terms of caribou, in terms of cultural beliefs for Gwich'in people of the area."

Written by Amy Tucker with files from The Associated Press and Yukon Morning


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