A bull caribou walks off into the mist at the Arctic Refuge in Alaska. Attempts to auction off portions of the refuge for oil drilling have resulted in only 11 lease sales and less than one per cent of expect revenue.
Photo credit Malkolm Boothroyd/malkolmboothroyd.com

A less-than-mediocre showing at Donald Trump’s much-touted lease sale of Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit — or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins — has a Gwich’in leader expressing optimism the vital caribou calving grounds will remain free from oil and gas mining.

After ignoring its own study on how development in the remote northern paradise would affect animal populations, particularly polar bear populations, the outgoing Trump administration doubled down on efforts to sell off the Gwich’in people’s lifeblood before power transferred to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

But in the wake of banks and investment firms refusing to finance any operations in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge — including all five major Canadian banks — when the bids were announce on Jan. 6 by the Bureau of Land Management, only 11 of the 22 tracts of land offered were bid on. And nine of those bids were the Alaskan government through its development bank which offered up $12 million in total bids.

“This is par for the course,” said Vuntun Gwitchin First Nation Chief Tizya-Tramm. “Throughout this entire journey,with the passing of the 2017 Jobs and Tax Cuts Act by the Trump administration and the direction of the Department of the Interior as well as the Bureau of Land Management, we have seen a complete disregard for good governance, due process, law, science and for any meaningful engagement or consultation with the Indigenous communities that are affected. I think the well was poisoned from the onset.

“We see this as a complete failure, especially with most of (the bids) being state-owned corporations, the Alaskan government is now losing money.”

Alaska’s Industrial Development and Export Authority authorized itself to spend up to $20 million on the protected lands after concerns were raised about a lack of interest from the industry. They passed the resolution during an emergency meeting Dec. 23, which included a 90-minute public hearing which was overwhelmingly against the motion, with 39 speaking out against and two speaking in favour.

A map of the portions of Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit — or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins — that were put up for sale Jan. 6. With a complete lack of interest from major oil companies, the Alaskan government purchased nine of 1 lease sales and 11 more remained unbid on.
Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

Texas-based oil company Regenerate Alaska LLC also claimed a tract of land with a bid of approximately $778,000 and Anchorage-based Knik Arm Services LLC took the other tract with a bid of $1.6 million. Four additional submitted bids were not completed.

Initially, the Bureau of Land Management announced it intended to only sell 400,000 acres of land, but then quietly increased that number to 1.1 million over December. In total, the tracts leased amount to roughly 500,000 acres. Leading up to the lease sale, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the leasing could generate $1.8 billion in tax revenue over a decade. When the dust settled, 0.8 per cent of that was generated, meaning only $16,560,000 was raised for the federal treasury.

Now, the hopeful drillers will have to wait up to 60 days for the sales to clear antitrust review and receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, which puts their ambitions on a collision course with an incoming federal government that is 100 per cent against the entire operation.

President-elect Biden has repeatedly vowed to protect the refuge and with Democrats now controlling both houses, there is little in his way to stop him. On top of that, a significant portion of global capital ranging from major U.S. banks to a multi-trillion dollar Investment Fund have made it public policy to not finance any oil and gas exploration in the refuge.

“The only people who are championing this act of ecocide are the Bureau of Land Management, the State of Alaska and the Trump administration,” said Tizya-Tramm. “What we are witnessing today is the death-throes of an illegal lease sale. How many millions has been spent on this entire process only for the state to receive less than a single per cent in the profits they were seeking?

“The emperor is not wearing any clothes.”

Though supporters have insisted opening the refuge to drilling was vital for economic development, the ANWR only became a pet project of Donald Trump after learning of the Republican Party’s repeated failures to remove the protections set in place by President Dwight Eisenhower 60 years ago. In an Aug. 17  interview with Fox & Friends, Trump told the hosts he was largely motivated to push the plan through because Republican Party interests had been trying to open the region for drilling since 1985.

“ANWR is a big deal that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get done and nobody could get done,” he said.

But in the wake of the weak-sale, Tizya-Tramm said he feels much more confident the caribou will be able to rear their calves in peace for decades to come.

He noted a recent denial of a preliminary injunction by a U.S. District Court judge may look like a loss for the Gwich’in on the surface, but in the fine print it paves the way forward for the Biden administration to prevent any drilling.

“The judge openly questioned why she was being sought to seek a preliminary injunction before the actions have been taken when she can simply reverse the leases once they’ve been issued,” said Tizya-Tramm. “Right there, that makes it even easier for the Biden administration to point towards the judge’s statements and to order the reversal of the lease sales.

“It goes a very long way from our humble Elders of 1988 giving us this direction to protection of the ANWR being part of the Presidential campaign of Joe Biden. This is one of his 10 ten priorities coming into office. Now we have not only the banks, not only full support in Canada, but now we have a President on our side.

“These lease sales will surely be reversed and we will see the eventual protections of these lands.”

Eric Bowling

Covering all things related to the Beaufort Delta, Eric Bowling is your editor for the Inuvik Drum. He came north after cutting his teeth in Alberta. Eric enjoys long walks, loud music and strong coffee.

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