The Porcupine caribou herd during its migration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refugee. (Peter Mather/

Threat of drilling in ANWR a long-fought battle for Gwich’in, environmentalists

‘They’re hoping for another Prudhoe Bay, but they really don’t know’

Environmentalists and Gwich’in on both sides of the border were outraged by the passing of a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives Oct. 5 which marks the first steps in allowing oil exploration and — eventually — drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The proposed site encompasses what’s called the 1002 Area, a strip of environmentally-sensitive land along the coast, where the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd is located. Biologists, including Mike Suitor of Environment Yukon, say the area is a vital component in the health of the Porcupine caribou and that any disruption to it could harm the herd.

The Gwich’in people — including Minister of Environment Pauline Frost, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Bruce Charlie and caribou advocate and former NDP MLA Lorraine Netro — have gone on record as saying they consider the calving grounds “sacred.” Any disturbance, the Gwich’in say, would cause damage to a place of great environmental, spiritual and cultural significance, threatening their traditional way of life.

While these events have recently surfaced in the media, the fight to protect the calving grounds from drilling is one that goes back nearly 50 years, says Joe Tetlichi, chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board.

In 1960, the U.S. government established the Arctic National Wildlife Range. The precursor to ANWR was designed to “preserve unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values,” according to the official ANWR website. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANCILA) redesignated the range as a refuge, leading to the official creation of ANWR as we know it today. Presently, ANWR encompasses nearly 7.7 million hectares of water and land, operating under the mandate of protecting plants and animals, ensuring a place for traditional hunting and gathering, protecting water and fulfilling “international wildlife treaty obligations.”

Canada’s Ivvavik and Vuntut national parks border ANWR.

Of particular significance within ANWR is 1002 Area — named for its section in ANCILA’s text — which is home to both the Porcupine caribou calving grounds and, potentially, oil.

Presently, Section 1003 of ANILCA states that the “production of oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is prohibited and no leasing or other development leading to production of oil and gas from the [refuge] shall be undertaken until authorized by an act of Congress.”

Exactly how much oil is thought to be in the region varies greatly depending on whom you ask.

“They’re hoping for another Prudhoe Bay, but they really don’t know,” Tetlichi said.

Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in North America. It’s estimated to contain 25 billion barrels of oil.

Radio Kenai reported Oct.6 that 1002 Area is thought to house 10.2 billion barrels of oil.

A 2007 report published by the University of California put that number at 7.06 billion barrels, worth $374 billion (in 2005 U.S. dollars), which would cost $123 billion to extract.

The study notes this quantity is “roughly equal to U.S. consumption (of oil) in 2005.”

In 1985, Chevron drilled a test well along the coast at a cost of $40 million. The results of its findings have never been released, despite a 1991 lawsuit which attempted to force the company to publish its findings.

In 1987, Canada and the U.S. signed the International Porcupine Caribou Agreement, which governs the stewardship of the herd. The objective of the agreement as it reads is to conserve the caribou, including, “recognizing the importance of conserving the habitat (of the herd) including areas as calving (and) post-calving … habitat.”

The agreement also acknowledges that First Nations in Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories have hunted “Porcupine caribou for customary and traditional uses and will continue to do so in the future.”

The agreement binds both parties to “consult promptly in order to consider appropriate action” when there is a threat of “significant damage” to the caribou or their habitat, including “significant disruption” to the caribou’s migration patterns or behaviours.

However, “cooperation and coordination under … this agreement shall be consistent with the laws, regulations and other national policies of the parties and is subject to the availability of funding,” the treaty states.

So, does that mean that, despite potential far-ranging international environmental implications and potential damage to the way of life of the Gwich’in peoples on both sides of the border, the U.S. can unilaterally decide that drilling in ANWR is permissible under its laws?

Yes, says Tetlichi. Technically, they can.

“You see what (President Donald) Trump is doing, giving executive orders on anything and everything,” he said.

“The Americans are saying ‘we need that oil, we are dependant on oil.’ The Alaskans are really dependant on oil,” he said. “Although the Alaskan Gwich’in are dead set against opening the refuge for drilling.

“We are doing the best we can on the Canadian side to protect the Porcupine caribou and we expect the same from the other side.”

In 1988, Tetlichi said, Gwich’in from both nations met at Arctic Village, AK, to discuss the protection of the Porcupine herd. It was during this time, he said, that much of the groundwork for the advocacy the Gwich’in have successfully used to keep the developers at bay for the last 30 years since then was laid out. Their work has revolved largely around education, he said.

But with the election of the Trump administration during the last American election, things have changed significantly. In previous years, the Republicans — who mostly back development and drilling in ANWR — had been held at bay by Democrats, who no longer have enough power to act as the political buffer they once did, Tetlichi said.

Regardless of who is responsible or how much oil is in the ground in 1002 Area, the Gwich’in say their way of life will be threatened if drilling goes ahead in the calving grounds.

“One of the arguments proponents of drilling (in ANWR) often use is looking at Prudhoe Bay-area (caribou) herds…. These caribou can redistribute (their calving grounds),” said Tetlichi. “The Porcupine caribou cannot.”

“One thing is for sure, the people who really lose (if you drill) are the caribou and the Gwich’in,” he said.

With files from the Associated Press

Contact Lori Fox at