Opinions

OPINION: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is visiting Alaska. Here’s what we’d like her to say.

Deb Haaland

As many Alaskans know, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is visiting our state this coming week, including a visit to Utqiagvik. It’s a commitment that she gave to Sen. Dan Sullivan prior to her confirmation, and we are heartened that she’s living up to this commitment.

Because of the power Interior secretaries have over our state, the relationship between the secretary and state leaders has at various times in history been strained. And many of the decisions that the Interior Department, or DOI, has made under Secretary Haaland’s charge have the potential to continue that strained relationship.

But we have hope that when she sees our state with her own eyes, when she hears from the people directly affected by those decisions, she will change course and make announcements that will be good for our state, our people, and our country.

Specifically, among other actions that she might make, we would like her to announce the following: She and the president will faithfully execute the law as it relates the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR; DOI will fully support the Willow project by recommitting to complete the Environmental Impact Statement in June, as well as committing to support other energy projects within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, or NPR-A; announce that DOI will accept the King Cove Road land exchange without further studies; and, at long last, approve the signed public land orders that will allow Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans to apply for the land allotments that they were promised.

These actions would strengthen our communities and our country, save lives, and right wrongs that were inflicted on patriotic Alaskans.

First, the NPR-A on Alaska’s North Slope contains billon of barrels of oil and has the potential to contribute hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day to meet our country’s energy needs. Roughly the size of Indiana, the NPR-A was set aside in 1923 specifically for oil production in case of emergencies. We believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the disruption this is causing energy markets, and the astronomical prices Americans are paying at the pump, all constitute an emergency.

Yet the Biden administration continues to take actions, including freezing drilling on federal lands, that delay fields— like Willow— that are on the cusp of production, and making it impossible to explore and produce oil in other areas of the NPR-A.

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We would also remind Secretary Haaland that Congress passed and the former president signed legislation opening up the 1002 Area of ANWR. This is law. We would hope that she will announce her commitment to following the law, honoring the existing leases, and allowing for the remaining, legally-required second lease sale within ANWR.

The bottom line: As we’ve both repeatedly said, it makes no sense for the Biden administration to call on other countries — like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — to produce more oil when we have it in our country and produce it using more rigorous environmental standards.

Further, Secretary Haaland is from New Mexico, where there is considerable energy production on tribal lands. On those lands, and throughout the state, the Bureau of Land Management, under DOI, has approved thousands of oil and gas permits during the secretary’s tenure, so she should understand how such production benefits Indigenous communities. Because of resource development on Alaska’s North Slope and elsewhere in the state, Alaska Natives are no longer among the most impoverished peoples on the planet. While the needs are still great, they are no longer one whale hunt away from starvation. We have health care clinics and schools in our communities. We have come far. We respectfully ask Secretary Haaland to treat Alaska like she treats New Mexico and allow us to continue developing our economy so that the progress we have made isn’t undone.

Secondly, we understand that she will visit King Cove during her trip. She will hear the community plead for an 11-mile gravel road that leads to Cold Bay and an all-weather airport that would enable them to be transported to medical facilities in emergencies. Too many lives have been lost and risked because of the lack of this road. In 2013, then Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the area. When she returned to D.C., from the comfort of her desk, she issued a statement denying the road, telling the residents of King Cove that protecting birds was more important than protecting them.

We fervently hope that Secretary Haaland isn’t so callous and commits to approving this life-saving road without delay.

Finally, we ask her to approve the public land orders that our Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans have waited on to finally get the land allotments they were promised.

In 1906, Congress passed a law allowing Alaska Natives to choose an allotment of 160 acres in the territory. Those rights were extinguished in 1971 with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA. However, many Alaska Natives—thousands — were serving in Vietnam and missed the deadline to apply.

In 1998, the Alaska congressional delegation was able to open up the program, but, as a result of restrictions, thousands of veterans were still left out. Sen. Sullivan was able to get a bill passed that would give more Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans the land that is owed to them. After countless studies, and millions of dollars’ worth of environmental reviews, the revocation of land orders just had to be implemented. All the Biden administration had to do — literally — was hit “send” to the Federal Register.

But the new administration delayed doing so for two years. Those two years are now up. We fear, however, that instead of immediately lifting the public land orders, she will instead announce that DOI will announce a decision based on a flawed environmental assessment, further delaying the program. We ask that the secretary does not take such action so that, at long last, the federal government can deliver on its promise to allow some of the most patriotic Americans — who were fighting for us in Vietnam — to finally secure the lands that are their birthright.

While Secretary Haaland visits our state, she will witness our great diversity of people and cultures, our geography, and a climate worthy of study by the finest scientific minds. She will see the promise of a new Arctic frontier. She will also see how our vast reserves of oil and gas, as well as minerals and metals, could and should play an integral role in moving our country toward an “all-of-the-above” energy future that includes renewables.

She will meet the most welcoming and patriotic citizens in the country, living in the most beautiful state in the country. She will see why we love our state, and why we are so committed to fighting for its people. We hope that she will join us as a partner in progress.

Harry Brower is the mayor of the North Slope Borough. He’s a Democrat and a lifelong resident of Utqiavik.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

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