Interior asking public not ‘if’, but ‘how’ to allow drilling in ANWR

Tussock tundra on Arctic Refuge coastal plain. (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

Public meetings on oil lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are drawing intense interest from Alaskans across the state. Last night, over 100 protesters gathered outside the Anchorage meeting, including Samuel Johns, whose mother is from Arctic Village, on the edge of the refuge.

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“I was in there just a little bit ago and I got to hear the first guy speak,” Johns said. “And the first guy, no offense to you all, but the first person in there to speak was a white man. In support of ANWR. In support of development. To me that’s a slap in the face to my people.”

At the meeting, officials said the Trump administration must move forward with oil lease sales in ANWR. The Department of Interior’s Joe Balash said that’s because of specific language in the law Congress passed last year allowing drilling in ANWR.

“The statutory provisions say, ‘DOI shall,’” Balash said.

Testimony at the meeting was mixed. Many protesters came inside to speak against development, citing impacts to subsistence, the climate, and the value of untouched wilderness. Others with labor and industry groups spoke in favor of development. Jason Alward was there representing Operating Engineers Local 302.

“The leases, the development, the production of ANWR’s natural resources are vital to our future,” Alwards said. “And this project can be done responsibly.”

The meeting ran over five hours, but it still wasn’t long enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to testify. The comment period officially ends June 19. However, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman says the agency has received many requests to extend it.

BLM is holding another public meeting on development in ANWR today in Utqiagvik. Additional meetings are planned in June in Kaktovik, Venetie and Washington, D.C.