OPINION: Fighting for public lands and Alaska’s future

When the Biden administration recently canceled the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s unlawfully issued oil leases on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it didn’t take long before we heard the usual claims of a “war on Alaska.”

But if we’re going to make such analogies, perhaps we need to shift our focus to the biggest fight of our time – the battle against climate change. Or the attacks on the food security and human rights of Alaska Native Peoples who live in and around the Arctic Refuge. Indigenous people have stewarded these lands since time immemorial, and their future depends on a healthy ecosystem and a thriving Porcupine caribou herd.

By canceling the AIDEA’s illegal leases, the Biden administration took a bold step to address legal deficiencies in their issuance, but also benefited our rural Arctic communities, made our climate a bit safer and renewed hope for permanently protecting one of the greatest intact and sacred landscapes in America.

For decades, Indigenous people in the Arctic have been forced to constantly defend the coastal plain from becoming a web of drill pads, roads and pipelines that would destroy the calving ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which provides the majority of food in Gwich’in villages.

Amid all the clashes over drilling and the recent lease cancellations, many people forget that the lease sale held in the closing days of the Trump administration failed on multiple levels:

• Not a single major oil company entered a bid.

• After two bidders returned their leases, the sale netted less than $10 million of the $1.8 billion projection that led Congress to open the refuge to drilling in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, leaving AIDEA as the sole entity holding on to leases, despite having no ability to develop them.


• Because the previous administration failed to do a thorough analysis of climate or other impacts of potential drilling, and rushed a leasing process that was full of legal deficiencies, it became the Biden administration’s responsibility to reassess and determine the leases were issued illegally.

Alaska is faced with an inconvenient truth: Our future cannot depend on fossil fuels, and we are in danger of destroying the coastal plain in a shortsighted pursuit of a dying dream. Industry is losing interest in the Arctic Refuge, and the six largest banks in America have announced policies against financing projects there. Globally, 20 companies have enacted policies against insuring any projects in the refuge.

They recognize that it’s simply a bad investment to support drilling on sacred Indigenous land so that greedy corporations can extract high-risk oil that, when burned, would spell disaster for our global climate and that of the Arctic, which is warming four times as fast as the rest of the world.

Oil drilling poses an existential threat to Arctic communities. Far from being a “war on Alaska,” opposition to drilling is driven by a need to protect not only a wild and spectacular landscape, but also to protect those Alaskans who would be imperiled by drilling. It bears noting that conservation organizations such as The Wilderness Society do not work to prevent drilling everywhere in Alaska, but some places are sacred, or simply too special to harm or destroy.

Petroleum is a dirty business. Greenhouse gases, spills, air pollution and destruction of high-value wildlife habitat in the Arctic Refuge – one of the most beautiful and intact landscapes in America – would threaten our collective future as human beings.

We have a responsibility to think bigger, to envision a diversified state economy, to protect our Indigenous communities and their sacred lands, to develop greener sources of energy, and to protect our greatest public lands for future generations.

Let us all fight together for a cleaner, healthier future for Alaska and America’s wild places.

Karlin Itchoak was born in Nome and spent a lot of time traveling to Utqiagvik and the Arctic. He is The Wilderness Society’s senior regional director for Alaska.

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