The following is an op-ed, which was published in The Hill in mid-May of 2019:
On May 1, the House Natural Resources Committee approved H.R. 1146 repealing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) oil and gas program. While Democrats pat each other on the back and push for a full hearing and vote on the House floor, I’m left to wonder how legislation lauded as a human rights bill could advance while completely ignoring the humans and the rights of those of us who live where drilling would occur.
The Iñupiat of Alaska’s North Slope have fought for decades to open a small portion of the Refuge to development. We worked diligently with our congressional delegates toward passage of Section 20001 of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which opened the non-wilderness section of ANWR to oil and gas leasing. H.R. 1146 undermines those efforts and specifically denies the Iñupiat people of Kaktovik – who live inside the 1002 Area where drilling would occur – the sovereign right to develop our land and resources.
The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, as it’s known, preaches a “moral responsibility to protect this wilderness heritage as an enduring resource to bequeath undisturbed to future generations of Americans”, but fails to acknowledge the basic needs of future generations of Arctic Iñupiat. The message this bill sends is that Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and the legislation’s co-sponsors prioritize the leisure whims of their eco-tourist constituencies above the needs of the Native people of Kaktovik and the North Slope.
In the Arctic, we live in a cash economy and deserve jobs and opportunities just like everyone else in America. Traditional subsistence activities require 21st Century means – snow machines, four-wheelers, boats and trucks. Our cultural values are passed down to younger generations thanks to modern-day amenities that require a pay check, so forgive us if we don’t appreciate efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park. We want to work to support our families, not lean on government subsidies for survival.
Of course, no anti-development bill would be complete without playing the climate change card and this one doesn’t disappoint, citing the unprecedented level of climate impact taking place in the Arctic. According to Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) during the May 1 bill markup, drilling in ANWR will only exacerbate the changing climate. Ironically, the extraction of oil and gas is not what’s changing our homeland in unprecedented ways, but rather global warming attributed to the gross overconsumption of the resource by people in faraway urban centers like California.
One of the most deplorable aspects of the bill, though, is its assertion that we should take development off the table because the Native Gwich’in say so. The reality is that the Gwich’in people live hundreds of miles from the 1002 Area of ANWR but are referenced throughout the legislation as if it’s their backyard. Meanwhile, the existence of the Iñupiat Kaktovikmiut who actually live and own land rights here aren’t acknowledged at all. The “respect and human rights of the Gwich’in” is used as repeal justification with absolutely no mention of the people who clearly stand to be most affected. It’s a self-serving argument that our people are unfortunately used to hearing.
At the end of the day, H.R. 1146 demonstrates how shockingly out of touch Rep. Huffman and plenty of other lawmakers are when it comes to Alaska and Alaskans. It also serves as a reminder that, even after years of responsible development coexisting alongside healthy ecosystems in the Arctic, some people are simply allergic to rational thinking when it comes to managing our natural resources.
We support environmental protection and resource development in the Arctic. It’s a balance we’ve been orchestrating since oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay more than 50 years ago. Drilling in ANWR doesn’t have to be an either-or decision. We can have a robust economy based on oil and gas that supports our region and state, as well as stringent industry standards that allow for world-class wildlife and healthy environment for future generations of Americans.
We are not arguing against the value in protecting the Refuge, and under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act more than 99 percent of ANWR will remain protected. Any protections, however, must be balanced against the economic and cultural well-being of its inhabitants. This bill doesn’t do that. Instead, it paints a crude half-portrait of our environment and does nothing to address the needs of our people. Frankly, it is a disservice to those of us who live here and who will be left to deal with its consequences.
The views of the Iñupiat who call ANWR home are frequently ignored, and H.R. 1146 only reinforces the reality that the wishes of people who live in and around the Coastal Plain are less important than those who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Matthew Rexford is Tribal Administrator of the Native Village of Kaktovik.