Bids in on oil, gas lease sale in ANWR

Legal battle continues over resource development in Gwich’in sacred lands

Trump administration officials and Alaska’s congressional delegation hailed the first ever oil and gas lease sale for the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, Jan. 6, as a success.

Opponents, including the Gwitch’in Steering Committee, vowed to keep up their legal battle to halt such activity on sacred lands.

A former state Department of Revenue official meanwhile predicted that all the hoopla aside, it was not an impressive showing of bids.

“They had a lease sale,” said Larry Persily, who served as federal coordinator of the Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects from 2010 to 2015. “They satisfied the law, made a paltry amount of money.” Other than the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, nobody of significance bid, he said.

Bids fell far short of the BLM’s hopes, with just 11 of 22 tracts bid on, with none of them coming from ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil or Hilcorp, owners of the Prudhoe Bay oilfields to the west of the wildlife refuge.

Persily noted that if the leases are not signed by Jan. 20 that incoming President Joe Biden can void the deal.  If they are signed, the federal government has the option to buy them back or just let the leases sit on the shelf and not worry about it, he said.

According to Chad Padgett, state director for the federal Bureau of Land Management, today’s results of 13 bids for a total of $14.4 million “reflect industry’s and the state’s commitment to responsible oil and gas development on the North Slope of Alaska.”

“Recent assessments show that the North Slope of Alaska will remain an important asset in meeting the energy needs of our nation,” he said.

Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, with Rep. Don Young, all R-Alaska, hailed the lease sale as one of significance. While the lease sale did not occur under ideal conditions, it will benefit Alaskans both in the short term and well into the future, Murkowski said.

Sullivan cited the occasion as “a momentous and historic day for all Alaskans,” and Young noted that “securing drilling rights on the Coastal Plain has been one of my career’s highest priorities.”

The GwichIn Steering Committee, to whom the Coastal Plain is “the sacred place where life begins,” vowed to keep up their legal battle to protect that area of ANWR, lands which have for generations served as calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

“The Gwitch’in people have defended our sacred lands for thousands of years and we will not stop now,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwitch’in Steering Committee. “We will continue to fight this illegal sale in court and we call on President-elect Biden to act immediately to protect our lands from destructive drilling once and for all.” Demientieff described the lease sale process one done in a sloppy and very embarrassing way, especially to the indigenous people of Alaska and Canada.

“This fight is far from over,” she said.

The Gwitch’In Steering Committee, along with several conservation groups, have been represented by Trustees for Alaska in their legal battle to prevent oil and gas exploration and development away from the Coastal Plain.

“While the U.S. District Court ruled on Tuesday, Jan. 5, that leasing itself does not pose imminent harm, the court did not rule on seismic and other on-the ground activities, leaving the door open for further legal action,” attorneys for Trustees said.

Brook Brisson, senior staff attorney with Trustees, said their case remains strong and their lawsuit will move forward in a continuing effort to keep oil and gas development out of sacred lands in the Arctic Refuge.

Trustees represents 13 clients in this litigation. They include the Gwitchin Steering Committee, Alaska Wilderness League, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society-Yukon Chapter, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, National Wildlife Federation National Wildlife Refuge Association, Northern Alaska Environmental Center Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch.