Now that 2021 is well underway, we’re starting to see the shape of the changing landscape that’s emerged since Inauguration Day – as well as what remains consistent regardless of political shifts. While a lot of work lays ahead, it might be described less like pushing boulders up hills, as we’ve all been doing in recent years, and more like a careful rerouting of a braided river’s channels. 

President Biden’s day one executive order putting a temporary halt to any drilling-related activities in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is a welcome signal that this administration intends to pay attention to Indigenous rights, the role of fossil fuel extraction in the climate crisis, and the necessity of protecting intact landscapes for future generations. 

But this wasn’t before leases were issued during the previous administration’s clumsy rush to complete the process before leaving office and the state of Alaska’s shady maneuverings over the holidays to tether the state’s economy to a dying industry in a new and creative way. The January 6 lease sale, which wrapped up just as news of the terrorist attack on the Capital spread across the internet, was described as a “bust,” a “flop,” a “joke,” and, most importantly, as “a desperate act of violence toward Indigenous ways of life,” as Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) submitted 9 of the 11 bids, 7 of which were signed and issued on January 19. In addition, Knik Arm Services, LLC, and Alaska-owned company, and Regenerate Alaska, Inc., an Australian company, now hold leases to one tract each. 


What does the executive order do (and not do)? 

While the order calls only for a temporary moratorium, it acknowledges the “alleged legal deficiencies” of the leasing program review, and states that the “Secretary [of the Interior] shall review the program and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.” 

The administration has taken additional actions addressing the climate crisis and fossil fuel extraction on public lands, and protectors around the US will continue to demand that the administration make good on its promises for climate action, science-based policy, and Indigenous rights. If confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, Representative Deb Haaland is sure to uphold these values for which she has steadily advocated throughout her career. 

In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in December, Arctic program coordinator Emily Sullivan and community organizer Jody Potts co-authored an op-ed imagining what truly permanent protection for the Refuge might look like, and the necessity of Indigenous leadership in long-term solutions. “Original land stewards should be in positions to make land-management decisions at every level, including the Department of the Interior,” they wrote. “Indigenous knowledge systems can show our government how to create a more sustainable future for Arctic communities, the coastal plain and the planet. We hope the incoming administration and the American people will stand with us in ensuring lasting protection for the next 60 years, and beyond.”

AIDEA, Alaskans are Watching

Alaskans outside the BLM building in Anchorage during the January 6 lease sale. Photo by Emily Sullivan.

Questions remain about how the lease sale can be undone; before issuing the leases, Arctic program coordinator Emily Sullivan and a coalition of partner organizations wrote an op-ed urging the AIDEA board to abandon the leases, and demanding that the state legislature rectify this act of violence committed against the sacred coastal plain and the people who depend on it. AIDEA must focus on its mission to diversify Alaska’s economy, and the Legislature can and should hold them accountable to this mission.” 

Now that leases have been issued, AIDEA has dug itself a deeper hole, but it’s easier to undo an administrative process than to undo the harms of seismic testing or drill rigs, and for all the ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking AIDEA claims to possess, they can surely find a way. 

Of course, AIDEA’s shenanigans aren’t limited to the Arctic Refuge. Following last year’s transfer of $35 million dollars towards the proposed Ambler road – money that could have been used to support small businesses through the pandemic summer of 2020 – three federal agencies issued a decision allowing the industrial mining road to move forward. AIDEA finalized the transfer just a couple weeks ago, matching funds with Ambler Metals

Read more from Dermot Cole here.    

So while there’s a lot we don’t know, we do know this: there is no mining road through the Brooks Range. There are no drilling rigs in the Arctic Refuge. In late February, the company that applied for a permit to do seismic testing missed its deadline, meaning that no permit will be issued this year, keeping thumper trucks out of these sacred, ecologically sensitive lands.  

And we intend to keep them out. 


Northern Alaska Environmental Center

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