For the past four decades, groups of Alaska Natives including the Gwich’in and Iñupiat, international institutions including the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the US government, the state of Alaska, and environmental groups have debated whether or not oil extraction should be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Made up of 19.3 million acres in northeastern Alaska, ANWR is an area with great cultural significance and ecological richness. Fossil fuel extraction poses significant material, reputational, and human rights risks according to the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a group formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill for oil in the coastal plain of ANWR, or what they call the Sacred Place Where All Life Begins, Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit.
In the past few months, the Trump administration issued nine leases, the first ever in the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain, even as major oil companies skipped out on bidding in the area and all major U.S. and Canadian banks pledged not to fund fossil fuel development in the Refuge. The sale was a major flop, which points to the larger movement away from fossil fuels, an inevitable transition reinforced by President Joe Biden’s 60-day moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
But despite efforts to protect ANWR, leases that went through under the Trump administration threaten to further violate human rights and damage wildlife.
The great risk of ecological devastation from oil & gas exploitation
Described as “North America’s Serengeti,” ANWR is the continent’s most intact and remote wilderness environment, a landscape of fragile tundra ecosystems and diverse wildlife. The Refuge is home to more than 40 fish and mammal species and over 200 bird species. Though harsh, the landscape exists in a delicate balance. Specially-adapted plant species thrive during long winters and short growing seasons, supporting annual wildlife migrations and hibernations, ecosystem functions, and a wealth of natural resources.
Of particular significance is Area 1002, mapped in Figure 2 below. The 1.5-million-acre area site within ANWR sits between the north slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska and the Beaufort Sea, and is the summer calving and feeding site of the Porcupine caribou, and a site sacred to the Gwich’in Tribe.
The Porcupine caribou herd has travelled the 1,500-mile trek, the longest documented terrestrial mammal migration in the world, to gather there for at least the past 23,000 years.
The herd is one of the area’s keystone species (i.e., if it were removed from the ecosystem, the landscape’s functional integrity would suffer and drastically change). The 125,000-strong herd plays a key ecological and cultural role in the Refuge, and the distribution and health of the herd is a direct indicator of the health of the entire ecosystem. Their annual journey provides them with good forage and relief from predators and mosquitos.
Oil and gas development could interfere with the Caribou herd’s migrations as industrial disturbances discourage the instinctual movements of pregnant and nursing caribou mothers – especially problematic given their slow reproductive rate – and could diminish the population.
Oil & Gas in ANWR
ANWR is also the site of oil fields, estimated by the US Geologic Survey in 2001 to contain between 11.6 to 31.5 billion barrels of oil (BBO) versus the 1987 estimate of 4.8 to 29.4 BBO, (95- and 5-percent probabilities) and mean values are 20.7 BBO versus 13.8 BBO (current assessment compared to 1998 assessment). and natural gas liquids (NGLs).
Opponents of drilling in the Arctic – including Indigenous groups, environmental organizations, and scientists – say these figures are outdated and that environmental and public health risks far outweigh any revenue. Proponents claim drilling here would significantly reduce prices and US foreign oil dependence, but such assertions are highly suspect. Market projections have shown that oil and gas exploration and production in ANWR’s North Slope would not increase US energy security or lower gas prices. Resource uncertainty and decreasing demand for fossil fuels nationally reveal a market that lures fewer and fewer investors.
Alaskan Native communities in the North Slope
For millennia, the northern Alaskan alpine tundra has been home to Native communities – including the Gwich’in, Hare, Iñupiaq, and Koyukon, who have a legacy of living sustainably in this complex, fragile, and sometimes very demanding, environment (see Figure 1). The health and wellbeing of these communities is intricately tied to the health of the environment surrounding them.
Along Alaska’s coast, outside of ANWR between Prudhoe Bay and Barrow (Utqiagvik) where oil and gas extraction is happening already, the current environmental damage from oil and gas extraction is undeniable. Extractive activities have disconnected wildlife corridors and negatively affected subsistence hunting, and the local tourism industry oriented around polar bear and whale viewing opportunities has suffered.
Though the issue has divided Alaskan communities, all those living in and around ANWR will likely face challenges borne of further oil and gas development.
Alaska’s Native peoples have led a decades-long fight to protect the area from unsustainable oil and gas development. This industry brought jobs, but introduced significant change to the way of life on the North Slope of the Athabaskan Gwazhał (Brook’s Mountain Range). Corporate profit has, in some locations, superseded the rights for health and safety of the Native people of this region.
Language Groups and Natural Features of the North Slope of Alaska
This map shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the context of oil fields; Native Alaskan language groups in Alaska and eastward into Canada; along with the habitats of the Central Arctic, Western Arctic, and Porcupine caribou herd — a species held sacred by the Gwich’in people. Please note that the Native Alaskan language group territories should be interpreted somewhat loosely, as it’s difficult to estimate the precise location and distinction between groups. See Figure 2 for a detailed map of the oil fields.
Figure 1: Language groups and natural features of the North Slope of Alaska, FracTracker Alliance, January 2021. Language boundaries were taken from the Alaskan Native Language Center, and data from Alaska DCRA Data. Boundaries of these caribou herds are fluid, and may change from year to year. Caribou herd boundaries digitized by FracTracker from compiled images compiled from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group, and Wikipedia. Oil and gas area boundaries digitized by FracTracker from compiled images from North Slope Borough: Department of Planning & Community Services, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Alaska ecoregions (including Coastal Plain) from USGS (link is a direct data download).
Trump’s Last-Minute Leasing in ANWR
But pressure from drilling opponents – including Alaskan Natives, environmental activists, and scientists – a global recession, low oil prices, and waning faith and interest in the oil and gas sector curbed expected lease sales. Major oil companies chose to forego the auction – a sale that US banks (and some Canadian institutions) refused to bankroll. The auction received only three bidders – one of which was the State of Alaska – and generated only a fraction of the revenue it was projected to raise. Half of the parcels drew no bidders at all.
Results of the January 2021 oil & gas lease sale in Area 1002
This map shows parcels purchased by three entities during the January 6, 2021 lease sale in Area 1002, a site of particular cultural and ecological importance within ANWR.
Figure 2: Results of the January 6, 2021 oil and gas lease sale in Area 1002, FracTracker Alliance, January 2021. Data layer for oil and gas lease area digitized by Karen Edelstein using a Bureau of Land Management map.
Despite the lukewarm response, the BLM received 13 bids on 11 lease tracts (symbolized in Figure 2, above, with diagonal red lines). This area spans 437,804 acres, is valued at a little over 14.4 million dollars and is estimated to contain eight billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Knik Arm Services and Regenerate Alaska each secured one parcel. Half of the sale’s revenue will go to the federal government, and half will go to the State of Alaska. The leases auctioned off are renewable and active for ten years. The BLM announced on January 19 that it signed and issued leases on nine of the 11 tracts. View the record of lease sales here.
40 Year Timeline Leading to the Recent Auction
The Trump Administration’s leasing decision followed 40 years of gridlock over oil and gas exploration and drilling in one of the nation’s most pristine environments. The timeline below outlines major developments in the struggle to protect ANWR:
1960: President Dwight Eisenhower establishes an 8.9-million-acre expanse in Alaska’s tundra as the nation’s first ecosystem-scale conservation area, specifically for its “unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.”
1972: The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) was recognized under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which transferred 44 million acres to Indigenous control and instigated the creation of 12 regional, private, for-profit companies intended to represent and protect Indigenous business interests and their ownership of the land and its resources.
1977: Margaret Murie, American naturalist, author, adventurer, and conservationist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom stood before Congress on behalf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, testifying to why we must defend our last wild places.
1980: President Jimmy Carter signs into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANICLA), which expands the protected area to 19.3 million acres and renames it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Act mandates that potential oil reserves in the 1.5-million-acre Coastal Plain be considered for development only with Congress’ authorization.
1987: Under President Ronald Reagan, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for ANWR’s oil and gas exploration is drafted, and the US Department of Interior recommends Congress open the Coastal Plain for exploration.
2002 – 2003: During President George W. Bush’s Administration, the House repeatedly approves drilling in ANWR – only to be met with the Senate’s rejection.
2012: The Gwich’in people present and defend a Resolution to Protect the Birthplace and Nursery Grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd to Congress and the President. The Resolution recognizes and affirms their right to continue and protect their way of life and the protection of the caribou they revere and depend on.
2015: President Barack Obama’s Administration releases the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan for ANWR, calling for core areas – including the Coastal Plain – to be designated as wilderness, the highest level of protection for public lands.
2017: Following House instructions, the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee legislates $1 billion in revenue creation between 2018 – 2027, and to that end, passes an ANWR drilling provision. President Donald Trump signs the bill into law through the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act, which makes several significant changes to individual income tax and — notably – mandates energy and job creation and economic growth for future generations, through which the Trump Administration and Republican lawmakers advance fossil fuel industry expansion. The law includes the ANWR lease provision as a way to generate revenue to offset the associated tax cuts, in turn opening up the Coastal Plain to drilling.
April, 2018: Gwich’in Council International (GCI) publishes Impact Assessment in the Arctic: Emerging Practices of Indigenous-led Review, identifying the strategic approaches Indigenous governments are taking as they lead their own major project assessment.
“Gwich’in Council International (GCI) represents 9,000 Gwich’in in the Northwest Territories (NWT), Yukon, and Alaska as a Permanent Participant in the Arctic Council; the only international organization where Indigenous peoples have a seat at the decision-making table alongside national governments. GCI supports Gwich’in by amplifying our voice on sustainable development and the environment at the international level to support resilient and healthy communities.”
December, 2018: The Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for oil and gas leasing in ANWR. Many opposed the DEIS as a violation of indigenous rights. The Center for American Progress analyzed public opinion concerning drilling in the refuge and found that an overwhelmingly majority opposed to drilling the refuge. Of the 1 million comments submitted in response to the draft EIS, 99 percent opposed the proposed oil and gas activity.
March 26, 2019: Gwich’in leaders from across the United States and Canada were joined by faith leaders, scientists, and veterans to stand before Congress and testify on behalf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its coastal plain, and to support passage of The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. Witnesses included Ms. Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director, Gwich’in Steering Committee; The Honorable Galen GilbertChief, Arctic Village Council; The Honorable Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation; The Honorable Victor Joseph, Chief/Chairman, Tanana Chiefs Conferece; Mr. Sam Alexander, Board Member, Gwich’in Council International; Mr. Fenton Rexford, Advisor to the Mayor of the North Slope Borough, Tribal Member, Native Village of Kaktovik; Rev. Mark Lattime, Bishop of Alaska, The Episcopal Church; Dr. Steven Amstrup, Chief Scientist, Polar Bears International; Mr. Chad Brown, Founder, Soul River, Inc.; Mr. Richard Glenn, Executive Vice President, External Affairs, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation; Mr. Matthew Rexford, Tribal Adminisrator, Native Village of Kaktovik.
October 2019: The Gwich’in Steering Committee, Cultural Survival, Land is Life, First Peoples Worldwide, and the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado submitted a report to the the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the report, “Observations on the State of Indigenous Human Rights in the United States of America,” groups state that “The government of the United States has repeatedly failed to protect the human rights of the Gwich’in by aggressively pursuing oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without first obtaining the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the Gwich’in Nation.”
September 2020: Fifteen states sue the Trump Administration over drilling in ANWR, and two more lawsuits from environmental and social justice organizations and Indigenous groups assert that oil operations would violate the rights of Indigenous populations and threaten the landscape and wildlife it sustains. BLM withdraws approximately 460,000 acres from the plan after extensive comment and protest from Alaskan Natives, environmental nonprofit organizations, and the Canadian government, though the majority of the leases remain on the table.
In the same month, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. Its release was a clear suppression of science and public opinion.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt made the following dubious claims: “Affordable energy and great paying energy jobs help power our nation’s economy, which is clearly thriving under President Trump’s policies,” stated. After rigorous review, robust public comment, and a consideration of a range of alternatives, today’s announcement is a big step to carry out the clear mandate we received from Congress to develop and implement a leasing program for the Coastal Plain, a program the people of Alaska have been seeking for over 40 years.”
December 2020: The Gwich’in Steering Committee, including Tribal Governments and Village Councils, and more than a dozen conservation groups seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction prohibiting Trump from approving and issuing oil and gas leases along the Coastal Plain. The filing asserts that it is well-known and documented that seismic exploration would cause irreparable harm to the landscape, its biodiversity, and its people, as well as their tribal archaeological and cultural resources – negative impacts that go beyond the lease tracts granted to purchasers, because it promises rights-of-way and easements that breach parcel boundaries.
January 5, 2021: The day before the lease auction, an Alaskan judge denies the lawsuit from Indigenous and environmental groups arguing that the lease sales were based on inadequate, outdated environmental review. The judge claims the group didn’t provide enough evidence of environmental transgressions to warrant an injunction.
“This is bum news but it’s not going to stop us from fighting to protect it,” said Bernadette Demientieff, chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee that brought the lawsuit. “This is sacred land to the Gwich’in. This is our way of life, and we’re not going to just allow anyone to come in and destroy our way of life, because our children are going to be the ones who have to live with the destruction that they caused.”
January 6, 2021: President Trump opens up the lease sale in a public auction hosted and streamed live on the BLM website.
January 19, 2021: On their last full day in office, the Trump Administration announces it had officially issued oil and gas leases in ANWR. The outgoing administration also tried to push through a law requiring banks to finance many industries, including oil and gas companies and assault weapons manufacturers, that major institutions – counting JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs – announced they would no longer finance.
January 20, 2021: President Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders his first day in office – 30 in the first three days – that reverse several of his predecessor’s environmentally-damaging policies . Biden directed the Secretary of the Interior to “place a temporary moratorium on all activities of the Federal Government relating to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, as established by the Record of Decision signed August 17, 2020, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Secretary shall review the program and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.”
Subsequently, the Department of the Interior issued Secretarial Order No. 3395, implementing a 60-day suspension of new oil and gas leasing and drilling permits for federal land and water.
On the same day, one of the preexisting lease holders, 88 Energy, published an update related to its operations on the North Slope of Alaska, stating plans to extract oil from the Coastal Plain by drilling directionally into the land from state land.
The Gwich’in Steering Committee released the following statement in response: “The Gwich’in Steering Committee opposes all forms of development and calls on Regenerate Alaska and its parent company, 88 Energy, to halt its plans.”
January 27, 2021: Biden issues a pause on oil and gas leasing in non-tribal federal lands and offshore waters, which lengthened the 60-day moratorium issued the week prior. He also ordered the creation of an interagency working group to prioritize economic revitalization of communities dependent on fossil fuels, and to focus on transitioning these workers to cleaner energy industries.
“We’re not going to lose jobs; we’re going to create jobs,” Biden said in his remarks about this executive order. Republicans criticized this move, saying it will eliminate jobs and hurt US businesses, but Biden’s order didn’t apply to all permitting. He added, “We’re not going to ban fracking,” a point he emphasized in his 2020 presidential campaign.
Did we miss anything? Let us know if you have important milestones to add to the timeline above!
The future of ANWR
Despite his plan to temporarily halt oil and gas leasing, Biden has approved at least 31 drilling permits since his inauguration. The Department of the Interior – whose top officials Biden put in charge of oil permitting decisions – states that the order, set to expire March 20, does not equate to a drilling permit freeze and does not apply to tribal lands. However, energy companies are still worried they may not be able to secure permits.
There are a few tactics that Biden can use to delay oil and gas exploration in ANWR, including reopening the Department of Interior’s record of decision (ROD), instituting a bid rejection, or delaying permits that companies need to search for oil and build infrastructure – though it is possible that companies could secure their leases and just wait for the administration to change (in their favor).
But if Biden wants to stick to his plan for a “just energy transition,” and advance his environmental justice, racial equity, and job creation priorities, he has to listen to Alaskan Natives and integrate their interests moving forward. Their input and right to manage their lands must be prioritized.
“We are eager to hear the Biden administration’s plan to replace the economy that it’s brought to a standstill, and look forward to working side-by-side with the President to create new, sustainable solutions,” said Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat (VOICE) President Sayers Tuzroyluk.
Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat is a nonprofit organization and communication network working across North Slope communities to address and participate in legislation, regulations, and government programs to protect their culture, and to ensure natural resource development in a safe and responsible manner.
Biden will also need to prioritize fossil fuel industry workers whose livelihoods are uncertain from his extended moratorium – for people in ANWR, and in other US communities.
Regulatory actions to open ANWR for drilling in ANWR have significant and potentially grievous implications for Alaska’s Native peoples, and do not bode well for Alaska’s air, water, and landscape, and the biodiverse species such as the Porcupine caribou that call it home.
Increased fossil fuel activity will also continue to alter the landscape and hinder its function by disconnecting migration and breeding habitat, disturbing and/or displacing animal populations, threatening their survival, and destroying the delicate ecological balance of the Coastal Plain.
However this issue is resolved, the rights of Alaskan Natives should be foremost in future decision-making and is of utmost importance to the future of their epic lands. Following their leadership, there’s hope that the solution will be equitable for both people and the environment
References & Where to Learn More
Gwich’in Steering Committee – The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill for oil in the Sacred Place Where Life Begins, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Gwich’in Place Name and Story Atlas is an interactive Story Map that invites visitors to explore the culture, history, traditional knowledge, and land use of the Gwich’in through Gwich’in place names. The Atlas is the result of more than two decades of collaboration between the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, Gwich’in Elders, and traditional land users living in the Gwich’in Settlement Region communities of Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic.
The Gwich’in Elders’ Biographies Research Project is a project of the Gwich’in Social & Cultural Institute’s Department of Cultural Heritage. Researchers interviewed 24 elders from the four Gwich’in communities, and collected their life histories. Many of the elders describe a very traditional lifestyle of moving seasonally on the land, being the last generation to live in this traditional manner. Their stories communicate their love and knowledge of the land, and speak to the importance of family ties, place names, legends, and historical events. They also offer snapshots of the sweeping changes the Gwich’in experienced in the 20th century.
The Right to be Cold is Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s memoir of growing up in Quebec’s Arctic on the front lines of climate change. “It is the story of an Inuk woman finding her place in the world, only to find her native land giving way to the inexorable warming of the planet.” She became one of the most influential Indigenous environmental, cultural, and human rights advocates in the world. She served as the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council from 1995 to 2002, and in 2002 she was elected its international chair. She launched the world’s first international legal action on climate change through a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women by Nancy Wachowich, Apphia Agalakti Awa, Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak and Sandra Pikujak Katsak offers a collection of stories from a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter from the Baffin Island community of Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Saqiyuq is the Inuktitut word for ‘a strong wind that suddenly shifts direction.’ Their stories illustrate the shift in Inuit life from nomadic subsistence hunting to permanent settlement in communities, and offer insight into the “enforced acculturation of the Inuit and the imposition of religious and cultural values useless to Inuit culture.”
A Moral Choice: The Human Rights Implications for the Gwich’in of Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, 2005.
Alaskan Natives https://www.alaskan-natives.com/
The Northern Alaska Environmental Center https://northern.org/
The Arctic Institute https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/topics/climate-and-environment/
The Arctic Council https://arctic-council.org/en/news/environment-and-climate/
Topics in this Article