Give and take in the tug of war over US Arctic oil production | Polarjournal
The largest U.S. wildlife refuge in the Arctic, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been the site of a back-and-forth over oil exploration for decades. Now the U.S. government has put the extraction rights sold by the Trump administration on hold because of legal deficiencies. Image: C. Paxson-Woelber, CC-BY SA 3.0

In politics, compromise is one of the cornerstones of a democratic system. This principle now seems to be making its way back into US energy policy. That’s because the current administration, led by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, has made two decisions in the last seven days regarding oil and gas development in northern Alaska that represent a trade-off between environmental protection and economic development in the region.

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made the announcement that the fossil fuel extraction leasing program created by the previous Trump administration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ANWR had “multiple legal deficiencies.” For this reason, the Ministry suspended all activities related to the sold licenses until further notice. According to the notification, a “new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program must first be prepared.” The previous Trump administration was accused of glaring deficiencies or inadequate analysis and failures to study alternatives when creating the leasing program.

The contested area on the North Slope, Alaska’s Arctic coast, is divided in two. On one side lies the largest nature reserve in the USA in the Arctic. Next to it is the National Petroleum Reserve, where oil and gas have been produced for decades. Here, ConocoPhllips’ new Willow project is expected to produce up to 300 million barrels of oil. Environmentalists and Inupiat associations are disappointed. Map: US Geological Survey

But this good news from ANWR’s eastern portion of the Alaskan North Slope is put into perspective by an announcement released just days earlier by the U.S. Department of Justice. In this, the government pledges support for a major production project by ConocoPhillips in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPRA) further west. This project had been allowed under the previous government, despite numerous objections from environmental and local native associations. These cited major concerns with the environmental impact analyses and had hoped for a retraction by the Biden administration. But the Department of Justice, as well as Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, said that the relevant agencies had followed all environmental laws prior to the Trump administration’s approval and had done everything correctly. The explosive part is that last year Secretary Haaland, then still a member of Congress, had strongly protested the project and pledged her full support to the affected native associations that opposed the project.

The three key figures in the whole story: Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (left, center) and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haarland. The two senators had supported Haarland’s nomination to be the first indigenous minister in the U.S., despite Haarland’s opposition during her time as a congresswoman on the two projects that have become matters of the heart for the two senators. Images: US Government via Wikicommons

With both decisions of the government there is now both approval and praise as well as criticism and disappointment. On the one hand, words of praise for the NPRA decision are coming not only from the business community, but more importantly, from Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. Both are great critics of the Biden administration, but had supported the appointment of Deb Haarland as the first indigenous federal minister, contrary to the majority of their party colleagues. “This is a good day for Alaska,” Senator Murkowski had told the Anchorage Daily News after the decision last week. Now, however, she told the media that the decision on the ANWR leasing program, while not surprising, was outrageous. Her colleague Dan Sullivan didn’t have to turn much in that regard. Already last week, while welcoming the o.k. for the Willow project, he again warned against the prospect of the Biden administration “going after Alaskans’ jobs.”

The North Slope of Alaska is an enormously important wildlife refuge for Arctic fauna. In addition to the heavily pressured polar bears of the Beaufort Sea population and the bowhead whales along the coast, it is mainly the water birds and the huge herds of reindeer that graze in the areas during the summer. Reindeer are an important factor among the local Inuit as a food and cultural resource. Photo: USFWS

There is also criticism and praise from local native associations. While the Gwich’in in the ANWR welcome and celebrate the Biden administration’s decision, Inupiat representatives in the NPRA area feel betrayed by the government, and not without reason. During the election campaign, Joe Biden had clearly opposed the extraction of fossil fuels in the US Arctic, and even now has repeatedly denounced his country’s oil and coal policy. As one of his first acts as the new president, he issued a halt to all activities in ANWR so that the leasing licences sold by his predecessor Trump in the final weeks of his term could not be implemented. But ConocoPhillips’ “Willow” project, still about 300 million barrels in size, may now have an easier final pass with last week’s decision. Plans include five drilling sites, hundreds of miles of pipelines and roads, a refinery and even a gravel mine. The Inupiat associations, who see their homeland in danger, have already announced that they will take legal action against the decision. On the other hand, the faces of the companies and the supporters of the promotion in ANWR have become very long. Because yesterday’s decision could have been an important step toward finally ending the decades-long battle over extraction in the largest U.S. Arctic natural reserve. In any case, it clearly shows that despite all the good intentions and pithy words, reality is more complex and usually full of compromises. For better or worse depends on the perspective.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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