About 250 people turned out Tuesday at a meeting in Fairbanks to offer comments on a federal plan to launch an oil and gas leasing program in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most of those who showed up for the meeting at the Carlson Center oppose the plan, because they say it would disrupt caribou calving season and harm Native subsistence and culture – and the environment. Backers of the plan say coastal-plain development would boost Alaska’s economy.
Eighty-four people signed up to talk about the plan to open the coastal plain to oil and gas development. By the time a half-dozen of them had spoken, nearly a hundred protesters showed up outside the Carlson Center to offer their public comments.
“I do have hope and faith that the Alaska Natives are going to stand up and they’re going to put a stop to this,” Fort Yukon Gwich’in Bernadette Demientieff told the crowd with a bullhorn. “Because when it comes down to it, we’re all going to be affected. Climate change don’t care if you’re upriver or downriver. We’re going to all live with the effects.”
Demientieff is executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which opposes development on the ecologically fragile coastal plain. Princess Daazhraii Johnson, the committee’s former executive director, said members of the organization and the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition came to tell federal officials presiding over the meeting that oil and gas exploration will harm the Porcupine Caribou Herd and other wildlife that provides subsistence to Native peoples.
“I wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for that Porcupine Caribou Herd, if it wasn’t for the łuk choo, the king salmon,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, inside the Carlson, representatives from industry and labor and officials with the state Department of Natural Resources accentuated the positive. Kara Moriarty is executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, and she says extracting the coastal plain’s hydrocarbons could bring economic benefits like those that came from development of the North Slope and construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
“It goes without saying that Alaska’s economy relies heavily on the oil and gas industry,” Moriarty said. “One-third of all jobs in the state of Alaska can be attributed back to the oil and gas industry.”
John Hopson Junior is mayor of Wainwright and president of the North Slope Borough. And he says his community and others in the region depend on the industry. “Oil and gas property tax is what pays for our services, when it comes to police and fire and schools and public works,” Hopson said.
But Steve Ginnis, the traditional chief of the Fort Yukon-based Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government, says federal officials should not proceed with developing an environmental impact statement or EIS for the lease sales because they haven’t adequately invited public comment from residents of communities that would be most affected by coastal plain development.
“I don’t understand how the United States government, and the Congress of the United States, could shortcut the process, to do what’s going on here today,” Ginnis said.
Rhonda Pitka is chief of the Village of Beaver, and she says federal officials should double the 60-day public comment period for the EIS. She says the feds should stage more meetings in Gwich’in communities and talk directly with tribal government officials – with an interpreter.
“Our chiefs are requesting that you come and consult with us,” Pitka said. “I’m requesting government-to-government consultation in the Village of Beaver. I also sent in a letter requesting that the materials be translated in Gwich’in, for our Gwich’in speakers. And that you also bring along translators.”
Pitka also says the meetings should be scheduled for later, because many Gwich’in are away from their villages at fish camps, preparing to harvest salmon.
“Our tribal members right now are getting ready for our subsistence season,” she said. “I’m actually missing out on getting my grandma’s fish camp ready for the fishing season.”
But scheduling the meeting around hunting and fishing seasons can be tricky, says Joe Balash. He’s a former state natural resources commissioner who now serves as an assistant secretary of the Interior, and he was one of the seven federal officials presiding over the meeting.
“The folks that live on the North Slope and participate in the whaling the season – y’know, the spring season has more or less just concluded, and there’ll be a fall season,” he said, “and we’ve got to watch that window as well.”
Balash said during a break in testimony that translating documents would be a new requirement that federal officials may want to consider, along with adjustments to the public meeting schedule. He says the first meeting in Kaktovik that was postponed has been rescheduled for next month. The next scoping meeting will be held tonight in Anchorage, followed by another on Thursday in Utqiagvik.
Public comments on the leasing-program plan EIS are due by June 19th.