This op-ed first appeared in The Hill.
When oil was first discovered in the Arctic in 1968, the indigenous Iñupiat were concerned about industry activities on their land and fought hard for self-determination to protect their subsistence resources. The discovery served as the catalyst to settle aboriginal land claims in Alaska and ultimately prompted the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, whereby the federal government, State of Alaska, and newly established Native corporations received land selections — in that order.
A few years later, as the State of Alaska pursued development on their land at Prudhoe Bay, now the largest oilfield in North America, it was widely opposed by many outsiders. Lawmakers, environmentalists and everyday naysayers warned the Iñupiat of the impending doom. The caribou would be wiped out, the tundra would be ruined and their culture would cease to exist.
Despite the doomsday warnings, construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began and by 1977 oil was flowing south from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Native leaders became businessmen and CEOs, and the oil industry transformed the North Slope Borough from a struggling third-world economy to a first-world region. At the same time, the caribou multiplied, the tundra survived and Iñupiaq culture and subsistence thrived.
They say history repeats itself. Here we are 40 years later and less than 100 miles away, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is the new Prudhoe Bay. The arguments against drilling are the same, but with decades of safe and responsible Arctic development behind us, the facts are getting in the way of the naysayers.
Simply put, the negative rhetoric surrounding drilling in ANWR has not kept pace with scientific advances in the oil and gas industry. Multi-lateral wells, directional drilling and extended reach wells are just a few of the advanced technologies that have resulted in increased production, minimum environmental impact and a much smaller land footprint.
Under current legislation, opening the coastal plain of ANWR to oil development would be limited by law to a footprint of 2,000 acres out of the 19 million-acre refuge — or one ten-thousandth of the refuge’s total land mass.
Industry regulations have also progressed, and today Alaska has some of the most stringent environmental standards in the world for oil and gas development. As indigenous stakeholders, the Iñupiat have decades of experience working with industry — helping to implement regulations unique to Arctic conditions in order to protect the land and subsistence resources.
But what about the caribou? Like Prudhoe Bay and its Central Arctic caribou herd once was, ANWR’s Porcupine caribou herd is the fear monger’s tool of choice for anti-development propaganda. As Natural Resources Commissioner for the State of Alaska, I would like to offer an informed assessment of the sustainability of the region’s caribou as it relates to oil and gas development.
First, the Central Arctic caribou herd is still flourishing today — just as it was prior to construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline and the arrival of drill rigs to Prudhoe — with recent counts at more than 22,000.
Second, exploration in the coastal plain of ANWR is being proposed strictly as a seasonal effort, with drilling taking place during the winter months only. The Porcupine herd leaves the coastal plain in July shortly after calving season and heads east and south back to its fall and wintering areas — approximately 400 miles away. To suggest that winter-specific exploration will negatively affect the Porcupine herd’s summer calving season is contrary to logic and unsupported by science.
It doesn’t escape us that the Yukon government in Canada has allowed the development of roads, a pipeline and other major infrastructure projects in the heart of Porcupine caribou country. Can you guess what happened? Yep, the herd is still thriving.
Protection of the caribou resource is important to all Arctic people. Our Alaska Native communities and the State of Alaska are not in the business of trading one resource for another. And we don’t have to.
The experience of Natives of the North Slope cannot be overstated. They bring a valuable perspective to the Arctic, based on thousands of years of traditional knowledge, which supports their regional priorities and offers solutions to maintaining a healthy ecosystem while providing for the economic longevity of their communities.
We support their desire to have a healthy environment and a healthy economy. They deserve a sustainable future just like the rest of America, and have always held that resource development and environmental protection can and do co-exist. After all, they’ve been orchestrating this balance since the discovery of oil in their backyard 40 years ago.
Andy Mack has served as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources since 2016. He is an attorney with experience in Arctic policy and development, private equity investment, and government and regulatory affairs. Much of his work has focused on the energy industry, Native corporations, local government and the state Legislature.