An airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. A notice being published April 20, in the Federal Register starts a 60-day review to sell oil and gas leases in the remote refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/via AP)

Gwich’in, allies vow resistance as U.S. readies ANWR drilling leases

‘The administration has made my people a target’

Oil and natural gas drilling in the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd is one step closer to being a reality.

The U.S. Interior Department’s bureau of land management began a 60-day “scoping” period today to gather public comments as part of an environmental review ahead of leasing land in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Canadian comments are being accepted as part of the process and Northerners, including the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Yukon government, are continuing to stand up against the idea.

The refuge’s coastal plains, where leasing is slated to happen cover the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, a sacred animal to the Gwich’in people.

“They are going to be spreading themselves across this entire area, thirsty and foaming at the lips for any oil and gas,” said Dana Tizya-Tramm a councillor with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow.

Tizya-Tramm said the First Nation and other signatories to the Porcupine caribou management plan are preparing to submit comments to the American process.

The First Nation will be depending on traditional knowledge as well as established science to argue for the protection of the caribou, he said.

Disturbing the natural balance of the ecosystem will have “global effects,” he said.

“If we cannot respect our foundations that have given rise to our very existence then what does that mean for our grandchildren?”

Tizya-Tramm said the First Nation has not heard from anyone with the American government on behalf of the Department of the Interior.

In 1987 the American and Canadian governments signed an international agreement around conserving the caribou.

“If anything is to significantly impact their migration or the herd integrity, we are to be engaged before any activities,” he said.

“So, although that is semi-ambiguous language we are not going to tacitly wait for the Department of the Interior or the Bureau of Land Management to reach out to us.”

The U.S. government has also signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he said.

“We will be utilizing these documents to make the U.S. government aware of the obligations that it has signed to prior to any of this development.”

Yukon’s Environment Minister Pauline Frost, who is also MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin, said the territorial government will also be making comments during the scoping process.

“We most certainly support and firmly believe that development in the calving grounds is not sustainable and all the parties (in the Canadian delegation) have affirmed that,” she said.

“We do also want to look at the Indigenous rights and the importance of the caribou to the people and the communities.”

The Bureau of Land Management will hold public scoping meetings in Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik and Utqiagvik. More locations could be added in the future, according to government documents.

Tizya-Tramm said he hopes officials will also come to Canada.

The First Nation would like to be present at the meetings in Alaska, he said. Details about that haven’t been decided yet.

Some estimates suggest the coastal plains of ANWR could contain 10.2 billion barrels of oil.

Those in favour of drilling have tried to get access to the area for decades.

Changes to the American Tax Act in 2017 say the Americans must offer one oil and gas land lease sale in four years. Officials say the first sale could happen as early as next year.

“I think that there is hope that we will hold a lease sale in 2019,” said the environmental impact statement’s project manager Nicole Hayes. “What we’re required to do though is have one within the next four years.”

Under the tax act, no fewer than two lease sales, each to include no fewer than 400,000 acres with the highest potential of hydrocarbons, must occur by December 2024.

Along with deciding which areas will be put out to lease, the final environmental impact statement will also decide on the terms and conditions for the associated oil and gas activities, the documents say.

Hayes said comments from Canadians will be welcomed.

“We definitely welcome comments and recommendations on where significant impacts may result as a result of this oil and gas leasing program.”

Questions about whether public meetings could happen in Canada were not answered in time for today’s deadline.

The Gwich’in Nation is promising to fight what they say is a “rush” to drill.

“The Interior Department has chosen to rush oil and gas leasing at the expense of human rights,” said Bernadette Dementieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in a statement.

“The administration has made my people a target. We in turn give notice to those in power that the Gwich’in people will not be silent. We will not stand down. We will fight to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge every step of the way.”

The Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has set up a website for people who want to submit comments online.

Emails sent via the webpage will also go to the offices of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal ministers including Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

“We really want to let them know that they have Canadian support to be bold and to step up to this, because this is a Canadian issue,” said Joanna Jack, conservation programs and outreach coordinator for CPAWS.

The environmental review process includes a requirement to consider transboundary concerns, Jack said. “That’s why this is such a critical moment for Canadians to be speaking up because … the Gwich’in, and Canadians generally are really well-placed to speak to those transboundary effects and to raise them during this comment period.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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