Alaska Representatives Argue for Drilling in Wildlife Refuge



(Committee on Energy and Natural Resources meets in Dirksen Senate Building. Photo by Tanner Hackney)

By Tanner Hackney

Washington, D.C.—Representatives from Alaska testified before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the Dirksen Senate building on Thursday, appealing to encourage resource development, like drilling for oil and collecting natural gasses, in the sector of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge known as the 1002.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain was set aside in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to be used for resource development. As part of recent tax reform, the committee is required to find $1 billion in deficit savings. Resource development in the 1002 could yield 10-20 billion barrels of oil, Rep. Dan Young said.

“All we’re asking for is the benefit of the deal promised long ago,” Gov. Bill Walker said.

Walker said the only way to get revenues for Alaska is through their resources. He said 80 percent of Alaskan communities don’t have roads, and that the money from resource collection in the 1002 could pay for new infrastructure, education, and health services. Since 2015, Alaska has had to reduce their budget by $1.7 billion, which only makes development more necessary, Walker said.

“Alaska is different,” Walker said. “Resource development is in our DNA.”

Samuel Alexander, a representative of the Gwich’in, a First Nations people, said resource development would harm the land and its wildlife.

“The land is essential to our way of life,” Alexander said. “It provides us sustenance and we consider it sacred.”

Alexander said drilling in the refuge will endanger local caribou and porcupine populations, animals the Gwich’in and other tribes rely on. If these wildlife populations are displaced or endangered, the Gwich’in will face food insecurity, Alexander said.

“We’re talking about the destruction of the herd and irreparable damage to our culture,” Alexander said.

Biologist and former Research Professor of Animal Genetics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Dr. Matthew Cronin said that caribou herds were relatively unaffected in areas of Alaska where oil fields have already been developed. He said there would be minimum impact on herds if activity was limited during calving periods. Cronin acknowledged that some of his research had been funded by oil companies like Exon Mobile and BP, but insisted his work was unbiased.

“Whether it was used to justify future drilling, it was always done with the intent of publishing in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, which we did, and all the references I give in my written testimony are such,” Cronin said.

Senator and Ranking Member of the committee Maria Cantwell said the threat to the wildlife hasn’t become any less of an issue since the 1002 was set aside in 1980.

“There’s no new science that says we don’t have to worry about wildlife,” Cantwell said. “And there is no new science that says that the oil development will take up a smaller footprint.”

Tribal Administrator for the Native Village of Katktovik and President of the Kaktovic Inupiat Corporation Matthew Rexford acknowledged the value of local wildlife to the Alaskan Natives, but said resource development would improve their lives greatly.

“We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate of no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence, and no hope for the future of our people,” Rexford said.

The impact of climate change is a major concern among those opposed to development and is viewed as a possible result of resource exploration. Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that further development and exploration will only exacerbate the effects of climate change and that the United States needs to invest more heavily in renewable energies.

“It is especially surprising that in a beautiful state like Alaska, which has been hit so hard by climate change, that you are not leading the world, leading this country, in telling us the damage that has been done and the need to move away from fossil fuel,” Sanders said.

Sen. Joe Manchin said the United State’s dependency on oil cannot be ignored.

“There’s going to be more fossil used in the world than ever before,” Manchin said. “All we can do is find different technologies and different abilities to use it until we find a technology or a new industry that will provide a cleaner energy.”

Rexford said resource development has already been occurring in Alaska and that their strict adherence to regulations ensures safe exploration.

“We Inupiat have the benefit of decades of experience working with the oil and gas industry, to implement stringent regulations to protect the lands through best management practices and the industry has consistently lived up to our standards,” Rexford said.


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