Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge faces long odds. It’s still dividing progressives in Alaska’s U.S. House race.

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Industry experts say the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Congress opened to oil development in 2017, is unlikely to play host to drilling rigs anytime soon — if ever.

The refuge, nonetheless, has become a flash point among left-leaning candidates in Alaska’s special U.S. House race, in which 48 people are seeking to replace the late Republican Rep. Don Young.

An offhand, pro-development comment from Democratic candidate Mary Peltola prompted a quick social media backlash, and a subsequent clarification. Another Democrat, Chris Constant, followed up with an 800-word blog post explaining his position: He supports drilling in the refuge only if there’s broad local support and a realistic plan to ensure minimal impacts.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders-aligned Santa Claus — his real name — is threatening to peel anti-development votes away from Peltola and Constant with his own uncompromising position.

“I’m well aware of the intricacies and complications and different considerations, forces at play, who wants what and who is willing to trade off something for another. My personal position still is defend the sacred, protect the Arctic,” said Claus, an independent, referencing the slogan often voiced by the Gwich’in, an Indigenous group opposed to development in the refuge.

The candidates’ differences over the Arctic Refuge track with a broader divide between Alaska progressives over what kind of candidate they support.

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Some argue that taking firm progressive stances — like opposing development in the refuge in a state where more than 60% of people support it — makes it impossible to appeal to a broad enough swath of voters to win an election. Democrats make up just 13% of Alaska’s roughly 585,000 registered voters.

“Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski spent 40 years making the refuge the holy grail,” said Mark Begich, the Democratic former U.S. senator. Opposing development in the area may not cost a Democrat a win in the primary, he added, “but a ‘no’ makes you a disqualified candidate, I believe, at this time as a statewide candidate.”

But others say that candidates who endorse drilling and other more centrist positions risk alienating liberal base voters.

“Alaskans are willing to work for and donate to candidates who have principled positions,” said Ed Alexander, a Claus supporter and Gwich’in leader who lives in Fairbanks. “If you have a milquetoast position on things, there’s a bunch of those guys out there — and what’s the difference between those guys and somebody else?”

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He added: “I have to vote for the person I think is going to help Alaskans the most, and that’s Santa Claus right now.”

‘Minimal’ odds of development

For decades, the question of development in the refuge has fueled caustic debate between Alaska’s pro-development politicians and nationally focused conservation groups.

National polls have shown opposition to drilling. But Alaska-based surveys show residents broadly in favor of the idea — with support last year hitting 64%.

Congress and former President Donald Trump, as part of their 2017 tax package, authorized drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain — the highest-potential area for oil and roughly 7% of the refuge’s overall area.

The nearest Gwich’in community, Arctic Village, is on the far side of a mountain range from the coastal plan, also known as the 1002 Area. But residents are stridently opposed to drilling because the coastal plain doubles as the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd — and those caribou are a staple of the Gwich’in’s subsistence-based diet.

Drilling enjoys more support in the only village inside the coastal plain, Kaktovik, whose Indigenous Iñupiaq residents have access to whale harvests, in addition to caribou.

But many Kaktovik residents, including a former mayor, oppose drilling in the refuge, too.

From a practical standpoint, development in the coastal plain faces a near certainty of lawsuits and challenges connecting to distant, existing infrastructure.

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When the Trump administration auctioned off oil leases in the days before President Joe Biden was sworn in, just one small oil company — and none of Alaska’s major multinational producers — bid on them, along with one other private group of speculators. Alaska’s state-owned economic development corporation placed most of the winning bids.

Biden’s administration has since suspended the leases, and major banks and insurers are increasingly committing not to back oil projects in the Arctic.

“The odds of ANWR ever being developed are minimal,” said Larry Persily, a longtime observer of Alaska’s oil and gas industry. “Yes, prices have gone up significantly. But that doesn’t change the economics of ANWR, or the fact that the companies have really shied away from these megaprojects that can take a decade or more to develop.”

A litmus test on climate

But opponents of drilling say that candidates’ positions on the coastal plain double as a litmus test on the broader issue of climate change: At least one major plan to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C and avert the largest risks of climate change makes no room for new oil developments.

Peltola, in her follow-up statement after the debate, said she supports “possible exploration” in the coastal plain — which she described as a “small sliver” of the refuge — based on what she described as studies showing minimal impacts to local subsistence species and huge benefits to the local economy.

“Alaskans have consistently supported exploration in this area,” Peltola’s statement said, adding that she’s committed to letting local people decide which projects move forward on their lands.

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Asked how she reconciles that position with the Gwich’in’s opposition to development, and the mixed views among Kaktovik residents, Peltola, in a phone interview, said she supports development because it’s written into ANILCA. That’s the landmark Alaska lands bill Congress passed in 1980 that left the coastal plain outside of the Arctic Refuge’s wilderness area.

“Since 1980, that little area has been a set-aside for exploration and possible development,” Peltola said. In the 2017 tax package, GOP U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski advanced the proposal for lease sales in the coastal plain, Peltola added, “so, technically speaking, it is the law, right?”

Constant, in his blog post, described development in the refuge as an “uphill battle,” and cited division on the issue among villages and communities in the area. But he said he supports responsible resource development that’s endorsed by local communities, if it comes with jobs and environmental protections.

“If, one day, there is a realistic and safe plan for some level of drilling in ANWR with minimal environmental impacts that was supported by the vast majority of communities and organizations in the region, I would likely support it,” Constant said. “Until then, I think we are better off spending our time and energy leading the way to a more sustainable energy future.”

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Claus has aligned his anti-drilling position with the Gwich’in and, after a recent phone interview, sent a photo of himself holding a “defend the sacred/protect the Arctic Refuge” sticker in front of a “Gwich’in Nation” sign.

He said he defers to the Gwich’in’s position, rather than that of pro-development Indigenous residents in Kaktovik, because “the kind of drilling that some people seem to support is unnecessary.”

“There are plenty of other options, and the oil in this case — companies don’t seem interested in exercising those particular interests,” Claus said.

Another candidate who’s appealed to progressive voters in the past, independent Al Gross, said he supports development of the coastal plain that he believes can be done “responsibly and safely.”

“I think you have to make compromises with all parties involved, including the Gwich’in and the oil companies,” he said in an interview.

Claus, Peltola, Gross and Constant all say they support actions to address climate change, though only Claus gave an unqualified endorsement of the Green New Deal — a Democratic congressional proposal that calls for dramatic action from the federal government to phase out fossil fuels and boost clean energy industries and jobs.

“I’m not a cheerleader for it, but I’m a big, strong supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and I like anything that’s bold and helps move us towards our goals,” Constant said in a phone interview.

Peltola said she doesn’t know enough about the Green New Deal’s particulars to say whether she supports it, but she added that she likes the concepts it contains. The government has already supported the oil industry with “investments and tax credits and all those things,” she said.

“I do think that we need to be pursuing renewable energy pathways,” she added.

Gross said he supports “renewable energy — everywhere and anywhere.”

“I don’t support the Green New Deal per se,” he said. “I’m just a strong advocate for renewable energy.”

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Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.