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Risky Byhalia Connection Pipeline Threatens Tennessee & Mississippi Health, Water Supply

 

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Overview

In December 2019, Plains All-American and Valero pipeline companies announced plans to build the 49-mile Byhalia Pipeline through southwestern Tennessee and northwestern Mississippi. The proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline is a 24-inch, high pressure (1500 psi) conduit, conveying crude oil coming Oklahoma, bound for the Gulf coast. The pipeline, which is designed to carry up to 420,000 barrels of oil a day, provides a link between the Diamond Pipeline to the west and the Capline Pipeline to the east. Construction is planned to begin in early 2021, and be completed by year’s end. Plains All-American insists that all safety precautions are being considered, but the outcry among residents and environmental advocates has been considerable.

Many factors—environmental, geological, social, and economic—have emerged as reasons that this pipeline should not move ahead. And industry most certainly didn’t count on pushback from the local community. Residents, allies, and the media have risen up to challenge the project. In this article, we’ll take a look at the story from various perspectives, augmented by FracTracker’s mapping insights.

UPDATE: On Friday, July 2, 2021, Plains All American announced that it would be abandoning its plans to build the controversial Byhalia Connection Pipeline. As one activist involved in the fight proudly stated, “We’ve shown them that we aren’t the path of least resistance. We are the path of resilience.” Read more about this momentous victory for the people of South Memphis here

Contents

Environmental and hydrological

Human health

Geological

Demographics and disaster preparedness

Economics and land ownership

Pipeline Incidents

Where From Here?


Byhalia Connection Pipeline

This interactive map looks at the various risks associated with the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline. The map contains all of the data layers related to the topics in this article. Scroll down in this article to find interactive maps separated out by topic. All data sources are listed in the “Details” section of the maps, as well as at the end of this article. Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.

View Full Screen | Updated March, 2021

Environmental and hydrological

The 49-mile route of the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline passes through a patchwork of rural, suburban, and urban landscapes. Along the route, the pipeline would cross seven named waterways — Johnson Creek, Hurricane Creek, Bean Patch Creek, Camp Creek, Short Brook, Camp Creek Canal, and Coldwater Creek — and also pass immediately adjacently to a nearly 5-mile-long wetlands complex that surrounds the Coldwater River. But the natural environment is home to many more waterways than those that have official names on topographic maps. According to FracTracker’s inspection of National Wetlands Inventory data collected by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the proposed pipeline crosses or touches 62 streams in 102 separate locations, 25 forested wetlands, an emergent wetland, 17 ponds, and one lake.

Close to the City of Memphis, 0.8 miles of the pipeline would run directly through the Davis Wellfield Wellhead Protection Zone. The proposed pipeline is located over the extraordinary Memphis Sands Aquifer, which provides potable water for more than 400,000 people. Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) Company pumps water from over 175 artesian wells in Shelby County, Tennessee, alone—right in the path of the pipeline route. The aquifer itself is a sensitive resource, already under demand by the human population of the area, as well as many industries such as breweries and as a supply of cooling water for a nearby power plant.

Memphis Sands Aquifer is part of the larger Middle Claiborne Aquifer, a groundwater and geological unit in the lower Mississippi drainage. Technically speaking, the Memphis Sands portion of the aquifer is located in Tennessee, but is continuous with the Sparta Sands Aquifer, located in Mississippi. In the eastern portion of the Byhalia Connection’s proposed route, wetlands along Coldwater River are directly part of the recharge zone of this aquifer.

Byhalia hydrologic components

To learn more about the hydrologic features that may be impacted by the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline, explore our interactive map. When this map is viewed full-size, you can choose to view additional layers from the drop-down Layers menu.

View Full Screen | Last updated March 2021

 

The Memphis Sands Aquifer lies 350 to 1000 feet under Memphis (see Figure 1), and spans an area of 7500 square miles, roughly the size of Lake Ontario. “It’s one of the best (aquifers) in the world in terms of thickness, aerial content, quality of water”, according to Roy Van Arsdale, Professor of Geology at University of Memphis. Under Shelby County alone — where Memphis is located — the aquifer contains approximately 58 trillion gallons of clean water. Over time, the aquifer has seen threats from overpumping, as the population of Memphis grew. In addition, industrial pollution has turned up in some samples, including cancer-causing benzene. Policy protections on the aquifer have been lacking, although there is increasingly vocal public awareness about the need for more comprehensive groundwater resource protection in the area.

 

Figure 1. Cross-section of aquifers under Memphis, TN. Graphic modified from here.

 

Although water withdrawals from the aquifer have declined significantly since 2000 due, in part, to more water-efficient household appliances that reduce demand in comparison with older models, the MLGW pumped 126 million gallons a day from the aquifer in 2015. Consequently, the level of the aquifer has been rising in recent years, as the rate of recharge has exceeded use.

The courts have suggested that the water in the aquifer is an intrastate resource, and that therefore, Mississippi cannot have sole governance over the extraction of the water within its state boundaries. Instead, usage should be through “equitable apportionment.” Further arguments are still pending, as of late 2020. In short, as Figure 1 shows, withdrawal and recharge of the aquifer do not respect state boundaries.

The details of water law, and who can tap into these, and other deep, ancient aquifers, are complex questions in which agriculture, ecology, geology, and technology bump up against each other. All of these interests, not to mention human health, could be heavily impacted by a crude oil pipeline rupture or other accident that resulted in contamination of this groundwater resource.

Human health

Crude oil spills release a panoply of volatile organic compounds into the air and water that are extremely harmful to human and environmental health. These include benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as carcinogenic benzo[a]pyrene, are also released. In addition, if the oil combusts, hydrogen sulfide gas, as well as heavy metals, including nickel, mercury, and cadmium, will become airborne.

Figure 2. Observed/documented oil spill-induced acute and chronic human health effects. Source: Guidance for the Environmental Public Health Management of Crude Oil Incidents, Health Canada (2018).

 

The take-away is that crude oil spills from pipelines are not uncommon, result in environmental damage, impacts on the health and safety of workers and nearby residents. Most importantly, despite monitoring and inspections, pipelines fail. A partial list of pipeline failures is shown in the sidebar.

Within the 2-mile buffer of the pipeline, there are 20 facilities that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) lists in its Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), including several chemical plants associated with hydrocarbon extraction. Carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic compounds, benzene, styrene, dioxins, and naphthalene are just a few of the compounds produced by facilities owned by Valero Energy Corporation, Drexel Chemical Company, and other companies within the 2-mile buffer zone of the pipeline, which compound the risks to the populations there. In addition, while the TRI lists exposure to toluene and xylene from these facilities, neither are categorized by EPA’s TRI database as a carcinogen due to a lack of data; however, their deleterious impacts on the central nervous system are undeniable, and well- documented (see examples here and here).

Byhalia civic and industrial facilities

View Full Screen | Updated March, 2021

In this interactive map, you can see sites in the proposed Byhalia Connection route that are listed in the TRI, as well as civic facilities like schools, daycare centers, and health care facilities. When this map is viewed full-size, you can choose to view additional layers from the drop-down Layers menu.

Geological

The most active seismic fault line in the eastern United States — the New Madrid Fault — is located about 40 miles from one end of the proposed pipeline (see Figure 2). The last major earthquakes along this fault line occurred in 1811 and 1812. Although the current Richter scale was not in use at that time, first quake in mid-December 1811 was estimated to have had a magnitude of between 7.2 and 8.2, and was followed by an aftershock of about 7.4. In January and February of 1812, there were additional earthquakes of this magnitude. Obviously, at this time in history, there was relatively sparse population in the area, and little infrastructure. Were such a quake to occur today, the outcomes would be catastrophic.

Figure 3: New Madrid Seismic Zone. Source: United States Geological Survey

 

According to a Wikipedia entry, “[i]n October 2009, a team composed of University of Illinois and Virginia Tech researchers headed by Amr S. Elnashai, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, considered a scenario where all three segments of the New Madrid fault ruptured simultaneously with a total earthquake magnitude of 7.7. The report found that there would be significant damage in the eight states studied – Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee – with the probability of additional damage in states farther from the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri would be most severely impacted, and the cities of Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri, would be severely damaged. The report estimated 86,000 casualties, including 3,500 fatalities, 715,000 damaged buildings, and 7.2 million people displaced, with two million of those seeking shelter, primarily due to the lack of utility services. Direct economic losses, according to the report, would be at least $300 billion.” Source: University of Illinois report]

Another article on the New Madrid fault added that “….the US Geological Survey and the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research estimate there’s a 7 to 10 percent chance of a major quake — one with a magnitude between 7.5 and 8.0 — occurring in the region in the next 50 years….’ The scope is about as big as you could possibly have,’ said Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and chairman of the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium… ‘Putting it in a purely financial context, Hurricane Katrina was a $106 billion disaster. We estimate this would be a $300 billion disaster, the worst in the history of the United States.’”

Earthquake damage to pipelines can occur from movement on the fault itself, soil liquefaction, uplift, and landslides, resulting in potentially catastrophic situations. Engineering solutions to minimize or prevent seismic damage to pipelines do exist. These solutions must be part of the overall pipeline design, however. For example, the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline was constructed with considerations for earthquake impacts in mind. For more information, read about the solution that was implemented there.

Byhalia geological context

This map shows the New Madrid seismic zone in the context of the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline. When this map is viewed full-size, you can choose to view additional layers from the drop-down Layers menu.

View Full Screen | Updated March 2021

Demographics and disaster preparedness

As eloquently reported in a series of articles in mlk50.com, the siting of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline is not only an issue environmental tied with the natural environment. This is very much an issue of environmental justice, as well. Many of the census blocks along the proposed, preferred route of the pipeline, are 99% Black. Boxtown, a community in southwest Memphis is one of places, and already has a long history of impacts by environmental contamination from the dozens of industries that operate there. Toxic waste from coal power plants includes heavy metals and radioactive materials.

The pipeline route from Memphis to its terminus in Mississippi takes a circuitous route, avoiding wealthier parts of the city and its suburbs, but goes directly through low-income areas, some of which are inhabited by a nearly 100% Black population.

FracTracker looked at US Census data along the pipeline route, and calculated a half-mile (minimum recommended) and two-mile buffer zone from the pipeline right-of-way to consider populations that might be impacted in the case of an accident.

Byhalia route demographics

Explore the the demographics along the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline route. When this map is viewed full-size, you can choose to view additional layers from the drop-down Layers menu, such as the non-white population ration along the proposed pipeline route.

View Full Screen | Updated March 2021

There are 15,000 people living in the immediate evacuation zone of a half mile from the pipeline. In some parts of South Memphis, within this half-mile evacuation zone, population density is above 4,000 people per square mile, and the Black population approaches 100%. Within a two mile distance, the number climbs to over 76,000. Depending on the direction of the wind, a crude oil-induced fire could spew dangerous levels of volatile organic compounds through the air towards these populations. The disproportional risks to minority and low-income populations make the location of this pipeline — undeniably — an issue of environmental justice.

 

Demographic Within ½ mile of Byhalia Connection Pipeline Within 2 miles of Byhalia Connection Pipeline
Total population 15,041 76,016
Non-white population 7204 (48%, although some parts of South Memphis are 99+%) 27,548 (36%, although some parts of South Memphis are 99+%)
Low income population 4272 (28%, although some parts of South Memphis are 90+%) 43,486(57%, although some parts of South Memphis are 90+%)

Table 1: Population demographics along the proposed Byhalia Connection pipeline corridor.

 

Key civic facilities are also located within the half-mile evacuation zone of the pipeline. Were a disaster to occur, would the schools, childcare centers and medical facilities be able to successfully usher their residents and students to safety? Would they have had regular safety trainings to prepare them for this possibility?

 

Facility Within ½ mile of pipeline Within 2 miles of pipeline
Child care 4 (one within 800 feet) 30
Public school 2 (one within 800 feet) 26
EMS 2 11
Hospital 0 1
Private school 0 1

Table 2: Facilities along the proposed Byhalia Connection pipeline corridor (also shown in the interactive map here).

 

Al Gore calls proposed Byhalia Connection pipeline ‘reckless, racist rip-off’ at rally

Former Vice President Al Gore voiced his opposition to the Byhalia Connection and put Memphis elected officials on notice during a rally against the pipeline on March 14, 2021.

Source: Article in commercialappeal.com

“Why is it that 64% of the polluting facilities of these pipeline communities are located in or adjacent to Black communities? Why is it that the cancer rate in SW Memphis four times higher than the national average? Why is it that Black children suffer from asthma three times more than white children? Why is it that the death rate from asthma for Black children is ten times higher than for white children?” – Former Vice President Al Gore

And two days later, on March 16th, the Memphis City Council unanimously approved a resolution that opposes the Byhalia Connection Pipeline project.

Economics and land ownership

Approximately 300 property owners adjacent to the pipeline have already accepted monetary compensation to abandon their homes or sell property easements to make way for the pipeline. If a landowner refuses payment offered by the pipeline company for a property easement — often far under market value — the company can take the landowner to court, and seize the property (or portion of it) with no requirement of compensation. Although a majority of property owners accepted the terms of the easements drawn up by Byhalia’s developers, at least 14 did not. When numerous owners refused, nine properties were targeted for taking by eminent domain, and sued by the pipeline company. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) is defending many of these property owners, claiming that the seizures — regardless of whether they are temporary or permanent — do not comply with the criteria of meeting a public good. The oil being transported in the proposed pipeline is entirely bound for export.

“The pipeline company is not created by, affiliated with or owned by the government, and the general public would have no access to the proposed crude oil pipeline… So, there is no ‘public use’ justifying the use of the condemnation power as required by Tennessee law,” said one of SELC’s attorneys. In addition, SELC has cited the illegality of the pipeline route because it runs through the municipal wellfield, and therefore violates permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corp was still considering this request, as of mid-January 2021.

Furthermore, the eminent domain targeting of land owned by Black Americans in the south is a pointed question of racial justice. Historically, black and brown people throughout the United States have had far lower levels of home ownership than whites. This gap is most pronounced in lower income areas.

Figure 5: Homeownership rate in the US, by household income (2017). Source: The Urban Institute.

 

“The 71.9 percent white homeownership rate in 2017 represented a 0.7 percentage point decline since 2010, and the 41.8 percent black homeownership rate represented a 2.7 percentage point decline during that same period. The 30.1 percentage point gap is wider than it was when race-based discrimination against homebuyers was legal.” The Urban Institute

Figure 6: Homeownership in the US by race or ethnicity. Source: The Urban Institute.

 

Losing land to eminent domain represents a loss of control for a landowner — white or black. But the loss is especially unjust when a property may have been so hard won, and sometimes the result of a multi-generational lineage of ownership, as is the case for many properties along the Byhalia right-of-way.

Pipeline Incidents

Crude oil spills, 2010-2021

FracTracker has created an interactive map showing the locations of crude oil spills across the United States between 2010 and 2021, using the most up-to-date information from PHMSA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

View Full Screen | Updated March, 2021


You can also read more about a wider diversity of hazardous liquid materials accidents analyzed by FracTracker in an article from February 2020, entitled “Pipelines Continue to Catch Fire and Explode”.

Case study of a pipeline explosion

A 2020 research paper states, “Modeling and analysis of a catastrophic oil spill and vapor cloud explosion in a confined space upon oil pipeline leaking” provides a stark example of the damage done from the leak and explosion of a crude oil pipeline operating at a third of the pressure proposed for Byhalia.

“It is obvious that the explosion caused big damages to the adjacent buildings, roads, and public structures. Moreover, the explosion, combustion, and the shock wave caused injuries and deaths of workers, pedestrians, and residents. The total affected zone spread nearly 5 km [3.1 miles].”

 

Note: The oil pipeline shown in Shengzhu, Xu, et al.’s paper in was 28 inches in diameter, and operating at a pressure of between 400 and 660 psi. A vapor cloud from the spill into a municipal drainage area caused this explosion, which killed 62 people and injured 136 in November 2013. The 24-inch, proposed Byhalia pipeline would operate at triple the pressure of the pipeline shown in these photos of its explosion.

(a) bird’s eye view of the location of the explosion point, (b) scene of the oil spill point after explosion, (c) scene of the nearby street, (d) scene of the drainage of the adjacent plant.

Figure 7: Scene of an oil pipeline explosion site in China. (a) bird’s eye view of the location of the explosion point, (b) scene of the oil spill point after explosion, (c) scene of the nearby street, (d) scene of the drainage of the adjacent plant. Image from Shengzhu, Xu, et al.

Guidance in the case of a crude oil incident

Health Canada published the information document Guidance on the Management of Crude Oil Incidents (2018), which details important information about how to deal with crude oil spills. Here are checklists on whether to evacuate or shelter in place and information on determining protective zone distances, particularly downwind of a spill from the 2016 Emergency Response Guidebook.

In case of a large spill: Consider initial downwind evacuation for at least 300 meters (1000 feet).

In case of a fire: If tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in a fire, ISOLATE for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions; also, consider initial evacuation for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions. Source: Petroleum crude oil hazards

Where from here?

The Byhalia Connection Pipeline is receiving considerable scrutiny, both from media sources like the Memphis Daily News and MLK50, as well as advocacy groups including Sierra Club’s Tennessee Chapter, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, and Protect Our Aquifer. In a move considered egregious by a vast swath of stakeholders, in early February 2021, the US Army Corps of Engineers approved a Nationwide 12 permit to fast-track the Byhalia project, effectively cutting out public comment from the process, and lightening the environmental review requirements. Because the project touches vulnerabilities in the intersection of environment, economics, health, safety, and social justice, this discussion is not likely to easily recede into the background, despite placating claims by the companies that are poised to profit.

Protests are ongoing, and just recently, on February 22, 2021, United States Congressional Representative Steve Cohen sent a direct appeal to President Biden to revoke a key permit for Byhalia, directly citing the burden the pipeline would impose on long-suffering Black neighborhoods in South Memphis. Simultaneously, the Public Works Department of Memphis is considering a resolution condemning the pipeline, and asking the Memphis Light, Gas, and Water Division to oppose the project.

This story will undoubtedly continue to evolve in the upcoming months.

The Takeaway

Regardless of where a pipeline is sited, there are inevitably risks to the environment, and to human communities living nearby. The proposed Byhalia Connection pipeline project is situated in a particularly problematic intersection where environmental justice, hydrology, geology, and risks to human and environmental health intersect. Without taking all of these factors into consideration, a potentially catastrophic cascade of impacts may ensue. Engagement and resistance to the project by the residents in the area, as well as support by advocacy groups, will hopefully result in comprehensive consideration of all the risks. Time will tell whether the project is modified, or simply defeated.

 

September 16, 2021 update:
In September, 2021, building on lessons learned from the fight against the now-defeated Byhalia Pipeline, Shelby County policymakers approved an ordinance that prohibits construction of new pipelines within 1500 feet of residential areas. The Memphis City Council is also expected to eventually vote on an ordinance that will directly protect the Memphis Sand Aquifer. 

References & Where to Learn More

MLK50.com maintains an archive of excellent reading materials on this controversial project that can be found here.

Topics in this Article

Pipelines | Social | Water

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The fight to protect Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

 

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Overview

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.

The Porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Alaska. Photo courtesy of NWF Blogs, 2015.

 

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

President Trump claimed that the January 6, 2021, lease sale’s potential revenue would offset the costs of major 2017 tax cuts.

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.

The Takeaway

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/

Environment America https://environmentamerica.org/blogs/environment-america-blog/ame/our-decades-long-campaign-defend-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

NRDC https://www.nrdc.org/protect-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

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

Social | Legislation & Politics | Wildlife & Ecology

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