Congressional delegation, Gwich’in, have diverse views on financing ANWR projects

One side wants financial firms to support oil, gas development in the Arctic, the other says no

Alaska’s congressional delegation and the Gwich’in Steering Committee are at serious odds on how much financial support firms engaged in oil and gas development projects in the Arctic should be getting from the private sector.

On Friday, Nov. 20, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, with Rep. Don Young, all R-Alaska, released a statement welcoming a proposal released that day by the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to ensure that national banks provide fair access to banking services “based on objective risk, without excluding legal businesses and individuals.”

That proposed federal rule came after members of Congress, led by the Alaska congressional delegation urged senior federal financial regulators to examine the legality of decisions made in late 2019 and earlier this year by several of the nation’s largest banks to withhold financing from oil and gas development projects in the Arctic, including the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Chad Padgett, state director of the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska State Office in Anchorage, is to announce on Dec. 17 or 18 that a sale will take place, with details on the minimum bid per acre required and other sale conditions. Since public comments on the matter are due by Dec. 17, he could do so without having reviewed those comments, noted independent investigative journalist Dermot Cole, of Fairbanks, in a recent Reporting from Alaska column.

The law requires a 30-day notice before a lease sale after the public comment period and Jan. 18 is likely out because it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so the lease sale could happen on the last day of the Trump administration, Cole noted.

“For too long, we have seen financial institutions making policy decisions in attempts to de-bank disfavored industries,” the delegation said. “Perhaps the most recent example came late last year, as Alaskans witnessed a deeply troubling trend of America’s big banks pledging to black-list energy development projects in the Arctic, without regard for the people who live here in some of the most economically-challenged parts of the country. Not only were these pledges callous, they also very likely violated federal law.”

According to Brian P. Brooks, acting comptroller of the Currency, “fair access to financial services, credit and capital are essential to the nation’s economy.”

“This proposed rule would ensure that banks meet their responsibility to provide their services fairly since they enjoy special privilege and powers because if the system fails to provide fairness to all, it cannot be a source of strength for any,” Brooks said.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee and a coalition of 77 other indigenous and conservation organizations and investors are asking international insurance companies to not insure or invest in oil and gas development projects in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“We ask oil and gas companies, the banks that fund them and insurance companies to stand with the Gwich’in Nation by not initiating any oil and gas development in the Arctic,” they said in a letter sent to a range of insurance firms ranging from AIG, Chubb and Liberty Mutual to The Hartford, Tokio Marine and Travelers.

Specifically, the letter said, “we ask your company to not insure or invest in the exploration, production or transportation of oil and gas in the Arctic Refuge, to rule out investments in companies involved in Arctic refuge development, and to make these new policies and announcements open to the public.”

Plans for oil and gas drilling threaten this rich pageant of wildlife. Beyond being the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the Coastal Plain is the most important denning site for polar bears in the United States. Additionally, 42 fish species and over 40 land and marine mammals call the Refuge home. And over 200 resident and migratory bird species rely on the Refuge, which serves as a seasonal home for birds traveling from every U.S. state. Oil and gas drilling is not worth severely disrupting this delicate ecosystem capable of supporting such a vast diversity of life, the letter said.

Signers of the letter further argued that Alaska is thawing at three times the rate of the rest of the world and the Arctic is ground-zero for the climate crisis. Any fossil fuel development in the region will only exacerbate the already disastrous impacts of climate change on local communities and the global environment. Indigenous knowledge and environmental data converge on the same story of changing weather patterns, thawing ground, and ripple effects on ecosystems near and far, they said.