The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is the largest wildlife refuge in America. Spanning more than 19 million acres, it’s an area larger than 10 U.S. states. This vast expanse is home to caribou, fox, bears, and dozens of other species. Much of that land is also home to the Native Iñupiat, and our people have utilized the resources it has blessed us with for more than 10,000 years. One type of those natural resources lies beneath this great land– oil and gas – and lots of it.
The debate over opening ANWR to drilling gained headway nationally in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter set aside less than eight percent of the refuge for potential oil and gas development. This section of ANWR became known as the 1002 area, after a section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Since then, Alaskans and the oil and gas industry have fought unsuccessfully to open the 1002 area to drilling, which literally requires an act of Congress. At the same time, Lower 48 lawmakers, special interest groups across the country, folks and organizations around the world have waged war on the idea — citing the disruption of wildlife and the pristine Arctic environment.
As ANWR debates occur, the views of the Iñupiat who call the area home are often times left out. The wishes of the people who live in and around the Refuges’ Coastal Plain are frequently drowned out by people who live hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Many of whom have never bothered to set foot anywhere near the Arctic. Well, today is a new day.
Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, an organization with 21 members from across the Arctic Slope region — including members from Kaktovik located inside ANWR — have voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting oil and gas development in the 1002 area. This is an unprecedented show of unity from the community leaders of the North Slope, those who live in and around the coastal plain of the Refuge, and should send a very clear message to America — we support the development of a portion of the Coastal Plain of ANWR.
My fellow Iñupiat and I firmly believe in a social license to operate, and perhaps no other potential project in the history of America has called for such a blessing from local indigenous peoples more than this one.
When oil was first discovered on our land in 1969, the Iñupiat were worried of industry activities and fought hard for self-determination in order to protect our subsistence resources. So, we fully understand the trepidation from outsiders; the fear that the presence of industry on the coastal plains of ANWR could disrupt wildlife and affect America’s manufactured perspective of our land and culture.
However, we also have the benefit of decades of experience working with the oil and gas industry to implement stringent regulations to protect our lands, and the industry has consistently lived up to our standards. Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field on the continent located 60 miles to the west of the coastal plain of ANWR, has demonstrated for four decades that resource development and ecological preservation can and do coexist in the Arctic.
The 1002 area of ANWR resides in our back yard and is entirely within our homeland, which gives the Iñupiat a unique perspective in the debate to allow drilling there. The oil and gas industry supports our communities by providing jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure investments; and has built our schools, hospitals and provided other basic services most Americans may take for granted. Our region recognizes its importance to our local and state economy, and we believe that development can be done responsibly in a portion of the 1002 area. We are not alone.
Over the past 35 years, the Alaska State Legislature has consistently passed resolution after resolution supporting the opening of ANWR to drilling. During that same time period, each Alaska congressional delegate and every single Alaska governor has supported responsible development of the 1002 area.
More recently, in January, Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced Senate Bill 49 — the Alaska Oil and Gas Production Act — which would allow development of 2,000 surface acres in the refuge’s coastal plain. This proposed legislation served as the catalyst for the Iñupiat people coming together to make an informed, united decision on whether or not to support drilling in ANWR.
As Iñupiat, we stand to be unarguably the most affected by oil and gas activity in the Arctic.
Therefore, we have the greatest stake in seeing that any and all development is done in a manner that keeps our land and subsistence resources safe. We know it can be done, because it’s already being done.
Now is the time to open ANWR to drilling.
• Matthew Rexford is president of Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation.