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Biden Leaves Local Tribe Out of Loop on Alaska Energy Lease Repeals

When the Biden administration in early September cited its “recognition of the Indigenous Knowledge of the original stewards of this area” in announcing the repeal of seven oil and gas leases on the North Slope of Alaska, it failed to mention that federal regulators did not consult with the Native Alaskans most directly affected.

Morrie Lemen, executive director of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (ICAS), said the leaders of his tribe weren’t informed of the administration’s decision until hours before it was announced by the Department of Interior, even though the Inupiat are the one tribal group who inhabit the land in question.

Moreover, the Inupiat are mandated by a previous executive order to be consulted by Interior about oil and gas leasing issues that affect the North Slope Burrough.

“When the ruling came down, we were contacted by Bureau of Land Management at the eleventh hour, about 45 minutes before the news came down they were canceling the permits,” Lemen said. “It took us by surprise. They said they contacted us for consultation, but they didn’t. We just wish the federal government would be more in tune with the rules.”

Making an end-run around the Inupiat’s opposition to the seven lease cancellations, Interior elicited contrary public statements of support from the Gwichʼin tribe, who don’t live in the North Slope Burrough that’s affected by the lease cancellations.

The Gwich’in inhabit a territory south of the Inupiat and 43 miles from the North Slope coast. Still, the tribe’s statement of support for the lease cancellations gave Interior the cover to sprinkle its announcement with phrases about honoring the traditions of Alaska Natives writ large, “who have relied on the land, water and wildlife to support their way of life for thousands of years.”

Lemen’s tribe of 13,500 people, who live in eight villages near or inside the Arctic Circle, rely heavily on oil and gas revenues to sustain themselves in a frigid climate, where buildings are difficult and expensive to erect, and keeping warm is a matter of life and death. They are a traditional subsistence hunting and fishing culture that depends upon the health of their natural environment, its fisheries, and wild game.

Revenues from oil and gas leases support the Inupiat villages’ basic infrastructure, including schools, medical facilities and public housing. Still, there is a shortage of residential building stock, and many families are forced to live with three generations crowded into small apartments, Lemen said. Without oil and gas revenues and related job opportunities, the Inupiat’s subsistence economy would collapse, he added.

“Fifty years ago, we didn’t even have running water,” Lemen said. “We’ve jumped into the 21st century at light speed and gone from no running water to electricity, but we wouldn’t support any development if we thought it would harm the environment. The oceans and lands are critical to our way of life.”

“We’ve co-existed with oil and gas drilling for five decades now, and it hasn’t spoiled any pristine landscapes,” Lemen said. “You can see caribou walking unbothered along pipelines. We wouldn’t support development if we thought it might damage our environment. The oceans and lands are critical to us. There are extreme drilling permit regulations in place to protect life here.”

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, and Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, declared opposition to “two Alaska new anti-development decisions,” including “canceling the lawfully awarded leases to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority,” and Interior’s proposal to withdraw millions of acres within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“Both moves are in direct contravention to Alaska-specific laws, lack scientific backing or consultation with Alaska Native stakeholders, tribes, and communities, and come at the worst possible time, geopolitically,” the joint release stated.

“Not only is this an affront to the rule of law, it’s also a grave injustice to the Inupiat people of the North Slope, especially the people of Kaktovik — the only village in ANWR,” Sullivan said. “As evidenced by this and so many of the administration’s actions negatively impacting the Alaska Native people, the idea of ‘equity’ is being exploited as a hollow political soundbite.”

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BAGHERI: Oil Extraction and Environmentalists

Oil extraction in Alaska has been a subject of controversy for decades. While proponents argue that it will enhance the country’s energy security and create jobs, environmentalists are concerned about its potential impact.

The project began in the 1960s and involved drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska. ANWR is a 19.6 million-acre region that is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including caribou, polar bears and migratory birds. The region is also significant for its cultural and spiritual importance to the Gwich’in people, who have lived there for thousands of years.

Environmentalists argue that the oil-drilling project will cause significant harm to ANWR’s delicate ecosystem. The drilling process involves using heavy machinery and drilling rigs that could damage the fragile tundra. The tundra is home to several plant species, including lichens and mosses that are crucial for soil stability and carbon sequestration. The drilling process could also lead to releasing of greenhouse gases and contaminating of soil and water resources, potentially harming wildlife and human health.

Oil spills and leaks could potentially harm these native species and cause long-term damage to their habitat. Additionally, they could disrupt the caribou’s migratory patterns, significantly affecting the Gwich’in, who rely on caribou for their subsistence and cultural practices.

These concerns have been amplified in recent years because of climate change. The Arctic is one of the regions most affected by climate change, with temperatures rising twice as fast as the global average. The melting of sea ice has opened up new opportunities for oil drilling, but it has also increased the risk of oil spills and leaks. Moreover, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change.

The project also raises questions about the country’s energy policy and commitment to transitioning to cleaner energy sources. The United States is one of the largest oil consumers, with more than 90 percent of its transportation fueled by petroleum products. While the country has made progress in increasing the use of renewable energy sources, its dependence on oil remains a significant challenge. The Alaskan project highlights the need for a comprehensive and sustainable energy policy that balances energy needs with environmental obligations.

Despite the concerns of environmentalists, the project has received support from some politicians and industry groups. Supporters argue that the project will enhance the country’s energy security by reducing its dependence on foreign oil and will create jobs. They also point out that the project will generate significant revenue for the government, which could be used for infrastructure development and other public projects.

Alaskan authorities have generally supported oil exploration in the Arctic. They argue that oil exploration and drilling would benefit the state. However, not all Alaskan authorities support oil exploration in the area.

Alaska Native communities, particularly those that rely on subsistence hunting and fishing, have expressed concerns about the potential effect of oil exploration and drilling on their way of life. They argue that the project would disrupt the region’s ecological balance and harm the wildlife they depend on for their subsistence.

Moreover, the Alaskan authorities’ stances on oil exploration are one of many factors that determine whether the project moves forward. The Bureau of Land Management regulates oil exploration and drilling in Alaska. The decision-making process involves evaluating the project’s potential environmental effects and economic benefits.

The contentious project highlights the tension between energy needs and environmental obligations. As the world faces the challenges of climate change and the need for a sustainable energy policy, it is essential to consider the long-term consequences of oil extraction projects and prioritize protecting our planet’s natural resources.

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