Last month,  the Northern Center joined with other members of local, state-wide, and national coalitions in filing three lawsuits in defense of Arctic Alaska. We have a responsibility to defend these lands, waters, and people, and while we continue to work on other fronts, the courts are an important tool in this work. 

On August 4, we sued three Trump administration agencies (the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and Army Corps of Engineers) in response to their July 23 approval of the proposed Ambler road. Federal agencies have plowed ahead with this project, despite widespread opposition, alongside state agencies like the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which has used the pandemic as cover to transfer public money away from Alaskans and into private industry projects. “All Alaskans should be outraged at this waste of state money and dismissal of local wishes,” said Clean Water and Mining Manager Solaris Gillispie in a press release.  

As the communities in the region have stated again and again, the impacts to the regionʼs water, food, and cultural sovereignty are unacceptable. Alaska’s wealth is in our lands, waters, and people, and we will not allow the state to trade that wealth for multinational companies’ profit.

 

Keep the Lawsuits Coming: Keep it in the Ground

 

In the second suit, filed on August 24th in response to the Record of Decision allowing leasing and drilling for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we have the honor of standing alongside the Gwich’in Steering Committee and other allies in suing to overturn the Department of Interior’s decision. 

As those of you who have participated in the rushed and clumsy public process set in motion by the December 2017 Tax Act know, the government has failed to follow several federal laws protecting the subsistence rights and spiritual traditions of the Gwich’in Nation and other Indigenous people. They’ve also failed to adequately address the adverse effects testing and drilling would have on wildlife – especially polar bears. 

Though the timing around the decision has been shrouded in mystery in recent months, we knew this was coming. The global pandemic has not slowed the administration’s efforts, and though much of the reporting on this decision has rightfully emphasized the economic, political, and legal realities that could impede the administration’s efforts to conduct a lease sale by the end of 2020, please remember that this is not the time to let our guard down. We know that despite the apparent ineptitude, this administration has no qualms in exploiting sacred lands; we’ve seen this in their destruction of springs and wildlife migration routes along the US border with Mexico and in the push for fossil fuel extraction throughout the southwest, and we must remain diligent now.

Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, has provided unwavering leadership in defense of Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, the Sacred Place Where Life Begins, and she promised that “We will give you one heck of a fight.” 

We will continue to stand with the Gwich’in in keeping the coastal plain protected for generations to come, in court and beyond. 

A third lawsuit focuses on the administration’s push to expand drilling in Alaska’s Western Arctic through the management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. Yet again, the administration’s new Integrated Activity Plan, or IAP, fails to address the impacts on people, water, wildlife, and the already rapidly changing Arctic climate that expanded oil and gas drilling would have. 

As our Program Director Lisa Baraff said in a press statement, “The Trump administration has again catered to Big Oil by handing over the western Arctic to the fossil fuel industry. BLM’s disregard for the ecological and cultural values of the Arctic, including the food access and security needs of local communities, puts oil industry profits before the people and animals of the region, and the real-world suffering caused by the fossil fuel industry. BLM has violated its legal obligation to provide maximum protection to Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok River, and other areas with significant subsistence, fish, wildlife, recreational, scenic, and historical value.”    

Too often, the values of the Reserve are overshadowed by the international recognition and significance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, suggesting that the landscapes and waters of the Western Arctic are less valuable or worth defending, and that some places must be sacrificed to extractive industry while others are protected. This is an inevitable symptom of a worldview that places corporate profit over health and sustainability, and since there is already so much industry infrastructure in the Western Arctic, it may be deemed less “pure” or “pristine.” But as we all know, climate change doesn’t respect legislative boundaries, and “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” 

Western Arctic communities have been living alongside industry for years, and as was very clear in what passed for public testimony during the virtual hearings for the proposed Willow project, without robust public involvement from the people most impacted, new projects will continue to replicate the injustices and environmental harms caused by existing fossil fuel extraction (read more about Willow here).      

 

What is “responsible development”  in a changed climate? 

 

Proponents of extractive industry  in the Arctic and elsewhere use phrases like “responsible development” to push their agenda, without a lot of examination of what that actually means.  

Lisa Baraff was recently quoted in an Alaska Business Magazine article about “responsible development” in the Arctic. We certainly agree with the article’s conclusion: it’s complicated, and it really matters who is at the table. But the way we talk about “development” is often really limiting. 

When asked about the phrase, Lisa said, “Frankly, this term ‘responsible development’ has always bothered me. It is used by industry and politicians as a catch-all phrase to sugar coat development. It is not uncommon for project proponents to say, ‘Isn’t it better to have this large scale development in Alaska where we have stringent regulations rather than in some foreign country that does not?’ while lobbying for and supporting rollbacks to the very laws and regulations and agencies responsible for the touted environmental checks and balances.” 

We’re seeing this  at play often this year, as industry and their political allies work to rush projects through during a global pandemic, including rolling back EPA’s regulatory authority to minimizing public input opportunities, as BLM did with the recent virtual hearings on the Willow project. This can hardly be called responsible. 

During those same hearings, BLM was asked why proposed drilling operations couldn’t be shut down during caribou migration, to protect the integrity of the herd and thus the food security of the community. BLM’s answer was that “large industrial operations cannot be started and stopped quickly to accommodate caribou.” This hardly seems like a balanced approach, but rather a statement of the incompatibility of oil infrastructure and caribou migration. 

If we’re thinking of “development” only in terms of industrial infrastructure, it’s helpful to think instead of costs and benefits––not only by degrees, but also in terms of who is benefitting, and who is bearing the cost. Our nation’s bedrock environmental laws and agencies––namely, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)––are under attack right now, threatening equitable, research-based decisions. And we’re seeing unprecedented eroding of the research that has occurred, such as a public comment period on a peer-reviewed study of the impacts of seismic testing on polar bears, which solicited comments not on the proposed action, but on the science itself which demonstrates the impacts on polar bears. All development comes with a cost. Recognizing these detriments, solar energy initiatives have popped up statewide, including in Fairbanks, Anchorage, the Kenai, Southeast Alaska, and in Arctic communities like Buckland and Kotzebue, where hyper-localized solutions and new technology have made solar increasingly viable.

As we await the outcomes of our lawsuits, we will continue advocating for a transition to a regenerative economy – one that is led by and serves the needs of the communities in which it functions rather than outside interests. We can work towards a transition off fossil fuels and industrial mining while supporting communities’ development of their own sustainable infrastructure. 

Alaska is not unique in the questions we face, but because of our geography and current economic situation, the urgency to act is greater. 

It’s the responsible thing to do. 

Northern Alaska Environmental Center

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