While Alaskans, like people around the world, have “hunkered down,” putting personal and professional projects, events, and celebrations on hold, finding creative ways to support vulnerable community members, and risking our own health and safety to show up for work, extractive industries have stepped up their timelines. With help from the Trump and Dunleavy administrations, their attempts to move multiple controversial projects forward around the state leave little doubt that these companies see the global health crisis as an opportunity to profit off Alaska’s lands and waters while the public’s attention is, rightfully, focused on the health and safety of our communities.

Crisis Opportunism

Using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the nation’s laws that protect public health, control pollution, and protect ecosystems and livelihoods made the unprecedented announcement that it would suspend enforcement of federal environmental regulations for the duration of the health crisis. It’s clear that removing laws that protect the health and wellbeing of anyone who relies on clean water and air to live (i.e., everyone!) is not the best way to protect the health of a nation’s citizens, but that’s not who this administration is working for.

In a group response to the EPA’s announcement, we wrote

With this order, the Trump Administration continues to abdicate its responsibility to protect public health. On the environmental front, they continue to advance big projects with ramifications for public health and rush environmental review being conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act. When the public asks for more time to comment on these planned projects, we are ignored and shut down. When the oil and gas industry asks for a free pass from meeting environmental requirements put in place to protect public health, EPA issues the order post-haste.

Mirroring the administration’s value system at the state level, Governor Dunleavy announced this year’s round of budget vetoes, which cuts $261 million from public services, including potential direct support for Alaska small businesses who are especially struggling, expecting the federal government to foot the bill through the CARES Act. It’s an odd move for a governor who’s made a habit of condemning “federal overreach” into Alaska issues, but shows us yet again that his loyalties lie with Outside corporations, not Alaskans. “The Governor continues to prove to Alaskans that he doesn’t care about the ‘Alaskan Way,’” says Native Peoples Action executive director Kendra Kloster in a joint press release.

“This is predictable, but nonetheless frustrating as our State is coming to terms with a new way of existing and surviving during this global pandemic,” continued the Northern Center’s executive director, Elisabeth Balster Dabney.

Also in the predictably-frustrating category at the state level: the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s (AIDEA) recent vote to transfer $35 million––money that could have been used to support Alaska businesses (noticing a pattern?)––to fund costs related to the proposed Ambler road, the private mining road in the Brooks Range paid for by state funds. Following two emergency call-in meetings on March 26 and 27, the board of the agency, which had been tasked with allotting relief funds to Alaskans impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, voted for the transfer despite the overwhelming public response asking them not to move forward. Dozens of Alaskans called on both days echoing the same message: We don’t want this road. We want food security, accessible healthcare, and clean water.

The meetings coincided with the Bureau of Land Management’s release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal. The FEIS, like previous documents, fails to adequately address concerns about the social and environmental impacts of the road, such as increased hunter access in a region that relies on access to traditional foods, water quality, and the risks posed to vulnerable populations when a transient industrial workforce moves into a region.

In the weeks since the AIDEA board’s vote, public pressure has not let up. Representative Andy Josephson wrote in an op-ed, “An important takeaway from the March 25–26 meeting is that government agencies must be respectful of the fact that Alaskans’ ability to track and participate in their government is weakened due to disruption of routines and resources,” and highlighted AIDEA’s opportunity to rescind its action at the April 15th board meeting.

Doyon Ltd. submitted a letter to the agency on April 7, stating that, “We find it troubling that AIDEA invoked the Coronavirus pandemic to justify funding this unauthorized road on an emergency basis…we hope AIDEA is not using this public health tragedy to pressure Doyon or other landowners into granting Rights of Way—particularly after AIDEA failed for years to engage with Doyon.”

An Anchorage Press op-ed by Anchorage business owners highlights the many abuses committed in this process, concluding, “Both the board and staff of AIDEA should be held accountable for this gross violation of the public trust.”

This transfer, of course, isn’t the only instance of pandemic profiteering in Alaska.

Weaponizing Inequity

On March 20, BLM released a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) on the proposed Willow Master Development Plan for public comment. The statement reflects the changes ConocoPhillips made to its proposal for a massive network of oil infrastructure since last fall.

We do not believe it’s appropriate for BLM to conduct this process in the midst of a global pandemic. We’ve submitted two letters to administration officials; one to the Department of Interior requesting suspension of public processes until the crisis has passed and people can fully participate, along with an additional letter specifically addressing the Willow SEIS. On April 9, BLM responded to the request, refusing to suspend the process. “I also agree that providing easy access to participate in a high quality, efficient and open process is paramount,” said project manager Racheal Jones. “That is why we are moving forward with our public meetings in a virtual environment in order to provide information to our public in the safest and most efficient way possible.”

The agency announced that they would hold eight virtual public meetings via Zoom, starting this week, with two meetings intended to prioritize North Slope communities, despite the lack of access to reliable internet in those communities. A recent Arctic Sounder article highlighted the challenges of distance learning in Arctic Alaska, as schools have shifted to online learning for the remainder of the spring semester, citing the fact that many Arctic households do not have home internet, creating further inequities for students who might already face economic challenges.

It’s hard to see how this could be seen as a “quality” process for those communities, like Nuiqsut, who would be most impacted by the Willow project if it were to move forward. In a March 31 press release, Siqiñiq Maupin, Community Art and Youth Organizer at Native Movement, said, “Our elders, children, and our most vulnerable community members are in fear of their health and lives. We have communities without hospitals, doctors, and emergency services. This is a time to focus on health for ourselves, family, friends, and humanity as a whole. In this unprecedented time, we cannot afford to continue projects that will directly affect communities that are unable to be involved in the public process. This is unethical, immoral, and a sham while no true public involvement can occur. We demand a stop to all development projects during this time and reevaluate our priorities to be an equitable society.”

BLM’s first “virtual hearings” on April 16 were indeed unethical, systemically excluding those in North Slope communities who would be most impacted by this project, and where access to internet is especially limited by closure of public facilities. Over 30 people testified in the first two meetings, all but two speaking to the inappropriate decision to continue this process, and repeating requests for suspension. Speakers rightfully described the process as racist, unconscionable, and appalling. .

Still, the administrative push for more development might be the only thing moving forward, even as ConocoPhillips has demobilized its rigs in Alaska, oil prices continue to drop, and BP’s transfer of assets to Hilcorp may fall through.

What Can I Do?

First, stay home.

For those not working at home, do what you can to keep yourselves healthy. This crisis has enabled exploitation of labor as well as our land and water, and not all of us are able to hunker at home.

Prioritize your own mental and physical health, and know that we are working to suspend these processes.

Continue to call for suspension of public comment periods, permitting, lease sales, and other public processes required under law until it is possible for people to meaningfully participate.

As the Trump administration continues to show their cards as exploitive opportunists, the need for future economies built on equity and sustainability are ever more urgent and tangible. “Normal” wasn’t working, and we won’t return to it. The failures of the systems supposedly built to support our health and wellbeing are increasingly apparent. Use your voice to demand resilient systems that benefit those on the front lines of oil extraction in rural Alaska communities without sacrificing our land, water, and health.

Additional resources:

  • Just Transition AK: A Just Transition is a framework for a fair shift to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable and just for all Alaskans. We hope you’ll join us to engage in an on-going conversation about “remembering forward” together and building Alaska’s Just Transition. Sign up for upcoming webinars.
  • Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting: Pretty soon, as the country begins to figure out how we “open back up” and move forward, very powerful forces will try to convince us all to get back to normal. (That never happened. What are you talking about?)

 

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