At Stake in Arctic Refuge Drilling Vote: Money, Wilderness and a Way of Life

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to polar bears and caribou. For many Alaskans living here, subsistence hunting is a way of life.

Caribou graze on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's bill to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain is linked to the Senate Republican tax plan and could be approved with a simple majority vote. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A Senate committee voted Wednesday to advance a plan that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the country's last untouched wilderness areas. While the drive to open the refuge is being spearheaded by Alaska's senior senator, it's getting a mixed reaction from Alaskans who live there and rely on the land.

Only one community falls within the borders of the refuge: Kaktovik, a city of about 240 people where subsistence hunting is not just a way of life, it's survival.

"We get most of our food from the land," said Robert Thompson, a Kaktovik resident who leads trips into the refuge. "If you visit our grocery story and see $23 steaks, you'll understand why. And it's our culture."

Thompson has watched for decades as Congress has debated the future of a 1.5-million-acre sliver of the refuge known as the coastal plain. That area lacks a federal distinction to permanently protect it, and oil companies and Alaska officials have long hoped it might be home to billions of dollars worth of oil.

It also happens to be home to polar bears, the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd, and thousands of migratory birds.

In the past, conservationists have fought off Republican efforts to allow drilling there. This time, as the drilling plan comes one step closer to final approval, that's seeming less likely.

Thompson worries that any development—he uses the word "exploitation"—could directly impact his ability to hunt. But his concerns go beyond that: "I don't want to live in an oil field," he said.

A Cautionary Tale from Nuiqsut

The community of Nuiqsut, which is close to Prudhoe Bay and is in the heart of the Alpine oil field, could offer a cautionary tale.

"I've attended a number of meetings there, and hunters complain about being pushed out by oil development from their traditional hunting areas," said Pat Pourchot, a former Interior Department special assistant for Alaska affairs and former commissioner of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources.

The sprawling infrastructure associated with the wells has changed the landscape around it, Pourchot said.

Sled dogs in Kaktovik. Credit: Anita Ritenour/CC-BY-2.0

Wilderness tours are an important part of the economy in Kaktovik. Credit: Anita Ritenour/CC-BY-2.0

"Nobody wants to shoot toward a pipeline or a road with trucks on it. Their hunting areas have changed, and they have to go further afield," he said.

The Promise of Oil Money

On the other side is the argument that the revenue oil can help local communities. In testimony before Congress earlier this month, Matthew Rexford, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Kaktovik and the president of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, offered a fiery argument for allowing drilling.

"The oil and gas industry supports our communities by providing jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure investments, has built our schools, hospitals, and has moved our people away from third-world living conditions—we refuse to go backward in time," he said.

Senate Republicans have pointed to that testimony to argue that Native Alaskans want the wildlife refuge opened.

The reality, of course, is complicated, and a lot of money is at stake. 

If drilling goes ahead in the coastal plain, it will also be able to go forward on nearby land owned by the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, which Rexford represents, and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC). ASRC signed a lease agreement with Chevron and BP in 1984 stipulating that if the federal government allowed drilling in the region, they could develop a 92,000-acre portion owned by the native groups.

That land is home to the only well that is known to have been drilled in the coastal plain—a test well called KIC#1 that was drilled in 1984. The results of that well remain one of Alaska's most closely guarded secrets.

Thompson said he worries that that lease agreement could influence what Rexford and others say about the development.

"They go to D.C. as if they're representing the native people of the North Slope, and the people who interview them bill them as that," Thompson said. "But they're representing the interests of a for-profit corporation that's in joint venture with Chevron and BP."

Drilling Bill Could Have Wider Repercussions

The vote Wednesday by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources unleashed a torrent of opposition from conservationists and scientists.

It was the latest step in a battle that began this summer when drilling in the refuge was proposed to fill a hole in the federal budget. But the war over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been going on for decades.

"That we must still fight to save the Arctic refuge is just shameful," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Targeted for Drilling in Budget Plan

Former Sen. Frank Murkowski spent years trying to bring drilling to the refuge, and when his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, took over his seat in 2002, she inherited that fight. She is now chairman of the committee that voted to open the coastal plain to drilling. The effort is linked to the Republicans' tax overhaul plan and will require just a simple majority to pass.

Murkowski's bill requires that the footprint for any wells and related activity be limited to just 2,000 acres of the coastal plain, and it promises two rounds of competitive bidding and strict adherence to environmental standards. But opponents say the language is misleading. The 2,000 acres need not be contiguous, according to the bill, and would be linked by a series of roads, pipelines and other structures.

Kristen Miller, the conservation director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said that means the entire 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain could be developed.

Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, said the group is starting to pressure Republicans over the wildlife refuge. They hope to replicate their success from 12 years ago, when enough House Republicans opposed a similar effort that it failed. 

Earlier this week, in anticipation of the vote, 37 leading Arctic wildlife scientists sent a letter to key senators opposing drilling on the coastal plain. They noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had described the coastal plain as containing the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected area above the Arctic Circle.

A bipartisan group of former Interior Department officials echoed that in a letter sent Tuesday. "In our view, there is no place like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and no place more deserving of protection for future generations of Americans," wrote the group, which included officials from the Nixon, George W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations. "Some places are just too special to drill."

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