Alaskans flock to Washington, D.C. for final ANWR hearing

WASHINGTON — The Bureau of Land management held its final public hearing on the scope of the environmental review of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before a divided crowd that included many Alaskans in Washington, D.C. Friday.

Environmental activists and Gwich'in Alaska Natives opposed to the drilling rallied on the hot sidewalk outside, including remarks from with Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus and an appearance of that standard-bearer of Arctic-related protests: someone dressed in a polar bear costume.

Inside, a panel of Alaskans (some recent, some past) sat at a dias to listen, without comment, to hours of public testimony delivered in five minute increments. The panel included two Alaskans appointed to top Interior Department positions in the Trump administration at the recommendation of Alaska's congressional delegation: Senior Advisor for Alaska Affairs Steve Wackowski and Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash. Also on the panel were Karen Mouritsen, BLM's acting state director; Greg Siekaniec, regional director for Alaska with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and the project coordinator for the environmental review, BLM's Nicole Hayes.

The public comment period serves purpose beyond allowing Americans to feel heard on matters that are important to them. Organizations that plan to ultimately sue the federal government over the product of the environmental review need to raise issues they plan to bring up in court in their comments. Some of the commentary delivered Friday can provide a window into the likely court battle over potential drilling in ANWR.

Jamie Williams, head of The Wilderness Society, laid three key arguments in his testimony at the Washington meeting that are likely to come up again: He pointed to a 1987 agreement between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Canada to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd. He said BLM must consider "the original purposes of the Arctic Refuge's creation," and its focus on "protecting fish, wildlife, habitat, subsistence, wilderness, recreation and water resources." And he said that the environmental review "must address all reasonably foreseeable impacts associated with leasing, exploration, production and reclamation of the coastal plain."

Originally, BLM offered to hold its public meeting in Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik and Utqiagvik. After complaints, the agency agreed to hold one meeting in the Lower 48, in Washington, D.C.

Alaskans offered a heavy turnout for the meeting though, with representatives from the oil and gas industry, various tribes and Native Corporations, and the administration of Gov. Bill Walker. There were no federal lawmakers at the meeting, for or against drilling in the Arctic.

During a break from testimony, Alaska's Natural Resources Commissioner Andrew "Andy" Mack said he felt it possible to manage the concerns of Alaskans whose subsistence activities depend on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which finds its home in the Coastal Plain of ANWR, and still drill for oil.

And he dismissed concerns about the 1987 agreement with Canada to protect the herd, though he had a copy of it with him at the meeting.

"You know the reality is that those agreements don't supersede any federal law, either in Canada or in the United States," Mack said. "The treaty is clear that it's a cooperating and consultation agreement," he said.

"But at the same time, just like most Alaskans bristle a little bit about people from Washington, D.C. telling them what to do, we bristle about people from Ottawa telling us what to do as well," he said.

Mack testified in the hearing, too, touting a positive Alaskan record for drilling in the Arctic.

Alaska Republican State Sen. Cathy Giessel, who chairs the state's natural resources committee, also spoke of a "long history of safe resource extraction" in Alaska, and good that could come to Alaskans by increased financial resources from Arctic drilling.

But other Alaskans at the meeting were there to stand with environmentalists from the Lower 48.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, argued that drilling in ANWR and the construction that would come with it would be an assault on her people, damaging their way of life and potentially ruining their access to the caribou for a subsistence lifestyle.

"This has always been a human rights issue," Demientieff said in a call before the hearing. "I am not an environmentalist; I am fighting for my way of life."