Chief Bruce Charlie says the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation will continue to try to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Maura Forrest/Yukon News file)

U.S. tax bill passes, opening ANWR to oil exploration

‘It’s a very sombre time here,’ Vuntut Gwitchin chief says

President Donald Trump signed the American Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law Dec. 22, officially opening up the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration and drilling.

Pro-drilling lobbyists have been trying to open the 1002 Area of ANWR since the refuge’s unofficial creation in 1960.

ANWR comprises 78,000 square kilometres of wilderness in far northeastern Alaska and is home to the extremely environmentally sensitive 1002 Area, a stretch of tundra and coastline which serves as the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd.

The measure, embedded in a sweeping and controversial tax cut bill, has been a hot-button issue between pro-oil Republicans and conservationists, who argue that drilling in ANWR will compromise the future of the caribou and violate an otherwise pristine wilderness.

1002 Area is thought to contain 10.2 billion barrels of oil, although that number is only an estimate.

Gwich’in on both sides of the border are culturally and economically tied to the caribou, which have traditionally been their main food source. They consider the calving grounds sacred and refer to it as “the sacred place where life begins.”

“It’s a very sombre environment here right now,” said Chief Bruce Charlie of the Vuntut Gwitchin in Old Crow. “It will take a few days to adjust to what has happened.”

Charlie was audibly subdued over the phone during his interview with the News, conducted the afternoon after the bill was passed by Congress.

“We have to accept the fact that the bill is passed,” he said. “We have to move forward and up our political game.”

Charlie said that the next step for the Vuntut Gwitchin is to look at international treaties between Canada and the U.S. which govern the area, including the Yukon River Salmon Agreement and the Porcupine Caribou Agreement.

“Now it’s time to move ahead and turn to paperwork,” he said.

Both the territorial and federal governments needs to work with the Gwich’in to “protect our way of life, our land and our water,” Charlie said.

Charlie said he was speaking, specifically, for his people, the Vuntut Gwitchin, not the Gwich’in nation as a whole.

Chris Rider, executive director of the Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said that the organization fully supports the Vuntut Gwitchin in protecting the caribou.

“We are doing whatever we can to support the Vuntut Gwitchin,” he said. “This is such an important fight.”

“The story and the relationship … the Vuntut Gwitchin have with the caribou is so important.”

Like Charlie, Rider said he would like to see the government at all levels looking at what “legal options” exist around enforcing transboundary treaties that cover the area.

“There has been success with lawsuits in the past around transboundary issues,” he said.

Rider also panned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “who has said nothing” about the subject so far. Rider said he would like to see Trudeau advocating for the caribou in Washington.

Much of the push to open ANWR to drilling has come from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act because of the perceived economic benefits it would provide the state.

“Opening the 1002 Area is the single-most important step we can take to strengthen our long-term security and create new wealth,” Murkowski said in Dec. 20 opinion piece published on her website. “Given Alaska’s economic struggles, with the highest unemployment of any state and massive budget deficits projected well into the future, the substantial benefits that responsible development will bring cannot arrive soon enough.

“New production from the 1002 Area will help restore throughput to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, our state’s economic backbone.”

Murkowski said she believed the pipeline would bring in $60 billion in royalties for Alaska.

Murkowski’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

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