WASHINGTON — Environmentalists, Democrats and a representative of the Gwich'in community of Arctic Village pledged Tuesday to keep fighting efforts by Alaska's congressional delegation to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
After a decades-long effort, Alaska's congressional delegation finally succeeded in opening a relatively small part of the refuge to potential drilling in a provision inserted into December's federal tax bill — the culmination of four decades of effort by Alaskans who favor drilling in ANWR.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., introduced a bill Tuesday to reverse the provision in the tax bill that opened ANWR to potential drilling. The bill faces no chance of passage currently. But if Democrats take control of the House of Representatives after November elections, it will be one of the first bills to come out of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the top Democrat on that committee.
The anti-drilling meeting in the U.S. Capitol came on the same day as the first of seven public meetings to collect information in preparation for an environmental assessment on the impact of drilling on the 1.6-million-acre coastal plain. The meeting was scheduled for a community hall in Kaktovik, a village of 240 on an island near the refuge's coastal plain.
The Interior Department is in the early stages of a regulatory process to prepare for leasing tracts for oil and gas development in the refuge.
ANWR is "too unique, too special to spoil," said David Hayes, of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law. Hayes served at the Interior Department during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Hayes said that the ongoing environmental review, conducted under the direction of the National Environmental Policy Act, "will play a critical role here in the coming months." The environmental review "must be completed before any testing or leasing decisions are made for the Arctic," and he said that it should take into account the impact of climate change on the refuge, and now any newly extracted oil plays into that. His position revealed the likely tactic that environmental lawyers will take as they seek to challenge and stall the leasing process for ANWR.
An environmental analysis will conclude that America doesn't need ANWR oil for national security any more than it needs geothermal energy from Yellowstone National Park, Hayes said.
"Caribou don't conduct a lot of fundraisers and the wilderness can't write us checks. And these are all being sacrificed to satisfy this Republican obsession of opening up every acre of public land to drilling or mining. And we can't allow this to happen," Grijalva said.
Republican Alaska Rep. Don Young, a senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the bill a "ridiculous political stunt" and said those opposed to drilling in ANWR are "bought and paid for by Earthjustice and (Natural Resources Defense Council)."
Young said he has invited Huffman and other members who co-sponsored the legislation to visit the coastal plain drilling area of ANWR "and hear from Alaskans (who) have long supported development" and want to be good stewards of the land.
"Our communities in Alaska are some of the most isolated in the world" and drilling supports Alaskans, providing funds to "build schools and hospitals and improve the infrastructure," Young said.
Members of Alaska's congressional delegation have said that they hope to see initial lease sales in one year. The law passed by Congress requires the first lease sale within four years.
The environmentalists and lawmakers at the Washington, D.C., meeting acknowledged that they face an uphill battle. Many Alaskans strongly disagree with them.
"When I first joined the Interior Department in February of 1997 and had my first trip to Alaska, as I was checking in with my federal ID to the Captain Cook hotel, the man behind the desk said, 'Oh, you're federal government. When are you going to give us ANWR back?' " Hayes said. "It's beyond the rational at this point."
But not all Alaskans are in favor of drilling, said Donetta Tritt, who is Gwich'in from Arctic Village and visited Washington, D.C., to work with the Democrats at the meeting.
Tritt said the Native corporations don't speak for her people and it is not the case that only Gwich'in Natives are opposed to drilling in the refuge. The land is irreplaceable, she said. And "what you do to that land, you can't take back."
"We're just getting started and we are in it for the long haul, until this refuge is protected permanently," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, from green group Defenders of Wildlife.