Alaska Native issues feature prominently at hearing on Arctic Refuge oil leasing

ASRC leaders and supporters held a press conference outside the Anchorage public meeting on oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Feb. 11, 2019. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

At a public meeting in Anchorage on the federal government’s plan to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, Alaska Native speakers delivered passionate testimony on both sides of the issue.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 450 people attended the Monday meeting. It stretched over seven hours. And following protests at the Fairbanks meeting last week, BLM changed the format to allow public testimony.

In her testimony, Charlene Apok of Golovin said she is Inupiaq and was there to speak in solidarity with Gwich’in people, who oppose drilling in the refuge because of potential harm to caribou.

“The refuge is not a warehouse. Again, the refuge is not a warehouse,” Apok said. “Nor is it a bank. The proposed drilling won’t pay for the desired tax cuts that the state is seeking.”

Throughout the hearing, an organized group of opponents from communities across the state provided much of the public testimony against development in the refuge, holding up bandannas and signs that said: “Defend the Sacred: Protect the Arctic.”

But in his testimony, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. executive Richard Glenn talked about oil’s economic benefits to North Slope communities.

“It’s the presence of the oil and gas industry in our region, it’s the only thing that’s hung around long enough to generate an economy — to generate an economy that we depend on,” said Glenn, ASRC’s executive vice president of external affairs. “This is not bullying. This is freedom. This is what built our schools in our region. This is what keeps our communities healthy.”

ASRC has been a major booster of oil development in the refuge. Later at the hearing, ASRC leaders, flanked by supporters from Alaska’s oil and gas industry, held a rare news conference, waving signs that said, “We Stand with Kaktovik, Open ANWR!” and “It’s Our Backyard.”

Glen Solomon, a leader and whaling captain from Kaktovik and an ASRC board member, was one of the speakers at the news conference.

“We love our people, we love our culture,” Solomon said. “And this is our fight. And we are making a stand. We stand strong. We’re tired of being silent.”

ASRC board chairman Crawford Patkotak praised the current leadership in Washington, D.C., which has made oil leasing in ANWR a priority.

“Thank God for our federal government, especially President Donald Trump, who has stood behind us,” Patkotak said.

As Patkotak was finishing his remarks, an Alaska Native woman attending the meeting began speaking over him.

“We’re supposed to be protecting the land, we’re supposed to be protecting the waters,” she said.

“When it comes to resource development, we are able to protect the environment and be able to benefit financially from all of this,” Patkotak said.

“It’s all about the money,” the woman said.

“It’s been too long, we’ve been left in poverty,” Patkotak said. “Other people would rather see us in poverty and without. This is our opportunity to enhance the lives of our people.”

“You get money, but none of the rest of the Alaska state taxpayers are benefiting,” the woman said.

The meeting culminated in competing chants outside — the woman versus a large crowd of ASRC leaders and their supporters shouting “10-02,” referring to the portion of the refuge where oil leasing is now legal.

“Money, money…shame on you!” the woman shouted in response.

The woman later identified herself as Natasha Gamache, from Nome. In an interview after ASRC’s news conference, she said she disagrees with the idea that oil development helps all Alaska Native communities.

“We have lots of examples, throughout the state, of villages where they don’t have access to running water. Where their villages are being washed away through erosion because of climate change. I think of Newtok and them having to move to Mertarvik. Is ASRC paying for their move? I don’t think so,” Gamache said.

Gamache reflected on disagreement in the Alaska Native community over resource development and how she thinks that outside entities can take advantage of that division.

“There is a reason that we are pitted against each other. There is a reason that there is disharmony between the people,” Gamache said. “Because if we were united, we would be an unstoppable force.”

“Unfortunately, it is not that way,” Gamache added.

The last public meeting on oil leasing in the refuge before the final environmental review is published is Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The public comment period has been extended to March 13.

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