More than 130 people gathered outside an Anchorage convention center Wednesday to protest the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, as the federal government took public comment inside the building to prepare for a lease sale in the refuge.
During early testimony in the Dena'ina Center, some speakers expressed support for leasing, saying oil production from the 19-million-acre refuge would help the state's petroleum-dependent economy and government.
One benefit would be additional oil moving through the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline, said Klinton VanWingerden, an Alaska Native who works for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.
It would help the pipeline operator overcome problems that have grown as Alaska oil production has plunged over the decades, he said. The problems include wax and ice buildup in the line that occurs as crude oil flows more slowly, losing heat.
Oil production from the refuge's coastal plain would provide a long-term solution, he said.
VanWingerden was one of 16 speakers invited by the Bureau of Land Management, through a citizens advisory panel, to provide the first round of testimony. The speakers, for and against the plan, were followed by dozens of others who signed up for an open-mic format.
In December, Congressional Republicans opened the 1.6 million-acre coastal plain to leasing after 40 years of failed attempts. The BLM must hold the first sale within four years, the second within seven years.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that lease income would generate $2 billion for the U.S. and Alaska to split. More revenue would flow from oil production, if it occurs.
The federal government is currently working to update a 20-year-old estimate that said the coastal plain might contain 7.7 billion barrels of oil.
Supporters of opening ANWR say it could potentially be another Prudhoe Bay, the giant oil field to the west of ANWR that has supported Alaska's economy for more than 40 years.
Opponents say ANWR oil development will threaten caribou, polar bears and other wildlife, devastating a virtually untouched region and contributing to climate-warming, greenhouse gas emissions.
The BLM in April began seeking public comment on how to reduce the environmental impact of potential exploration and development in the refuge, said Joe Balash, Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, during a press conference Wednesday.
The agency has received 70,000 comments, mostly form letters, said a BLM spokesperson, who did not know how many of those comments were opposed to opening the refuge.
Public comment opened April 20 and is set to close June 19.
On a comment card inside the center, Steve Post, vice president of North Star Terminal and Stevedore, which provides dock loading services, said opening ANWR would be good for Alaska and the U.S.
"In favor of opening ANWR jobs because: Jobs! Energy! National security!" he wrote.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee that opposes ANWR development, was one of the invited speakers. She said an oil spill is inevitable and will poison caribou and other animals her people eat.
"Consider the animals that are there that don't have a voice, the people whose lives are forever going to change," she pleaded, her voice breaking.
Defend the Sacred AK, a statewide network of groups opposed to opening the refuge, organized the rally before protesters went inside to speak. Some people hoisted cut-out signs shaped like caribou. Others held banners calling for no development in the refuge.
"When human rights are under attack, what do we do?" shouted Maryann Warden, an Inupiat elder and former resident of Kaktovik, the only village within the refuge.
"Fight back!" the crowd shouted.