FAIRBANKS - Sen. Ted Stevens says he will introduce an amendment to allow the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. to drill for oil on its 92,000 acres of land within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
His proposal follows Senate Republicans' inability Thursday to break a Democratic filibuster against opening the wildlife refuge to oil drilling.
The Arctic Slope Regional Corp. is one of 13 regional corporations formed as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It represents Natives living on Alaska's North Slope.
Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said Thursday that Congress is unfairly denying Inupiat Natives the fundamental right to use their land.
However, opponents of drilling said the corporation freely accepted the restriction on its use of the land when it acquired the acreage. Arctic Slope Regional Corp. acquired the subsurface rights to the 92,000 acres in the coastal plain of the refuge in a land exchange in 1983.
Under the agreement, the Interior Department allowed only limited exploratory oil drilling on the land, unless Congress opened other coastal plain land in the refuge to oil leasing.
One well was drilled, south of the village of Kaktovik, but the results have never been made public.
"Why should the Alaska Eskimos be the only indigenous people who own land that are forbidden from drilling on it, forbidden from using it to provide jobs for their people and jobs for American industry?" Stevens asked.
Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League said that's what the Eskimos agreed to.
The corporation gambled when it made the land trade, he said. If Congress opens the coastal plain, that gamble will pay off. If not, nothing unfair has been done to the people of the North Slope, he said.
"In that agreement ASRC signed, it stated very clearly they didn't have oil development rights," Kolton said.
Richard Glenn, ASRC lands director, said that is an excessively narrow interpretation of the situation. The North Slope's Native people formerly owned the entire area by virtue of occupation, he said. The claims settlement act restored to them a mere 10 percent.
The 1983 deal with the Interior Department was not so much a trade as an attempt by the corporation to reclaim something more of what was lost, he said. The current limitation on how the corporation uses the land thwarts that historic effort, he said.
The development would provide both property taxes to the borough and direct income for North Slope Natives, many of whom own dividend-producing shares in ASRC.
Still, Glenn said, the corporation would much prefer that all the coastal plain be available for exploratory drilling and then development.
"You need a reasonable, broad exploration," he said.
Kolton said ASRC should seek land trades elsewhere on the North Slope. He also said that pushing for drilling rights on the Native-owned lands would endanger the energy bill in the Democrat-led Senate.
"This myopic focus on the Arctic refuge doesn't do anyone any service," he said. "We believe our Senate champions would oppose any change in the law to allow drilling in the Arctic refuge."