Interior Dept. kicks off new round of meetings on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The early part of a public meeting held in Fairbanks yesterday on the Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental review for leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Ravenna Koenig/ Alaska’s Energy Desk)

On Monday in Fairbanks, the Bureau of Land Management kicked off its latest round of public meetings on the planned oil and gas program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The meeting focused on the draft environmental review released by BLM in December. The final version will include the details of where and how leasing will happen.

Sydney Deering, a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying petroleum engineering, came to put forward a positive voice for exploration and development.

“This is a very important event in Alaska’s history,” Deering said. “We’ve been trying to get this area open for a very long time.”

Others expressed concern about the process. Lisa Baraff with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center said that the timeline BLM has been using for their environmental review is too short.

“It’s hard to imagine that this is sufficient time to really do the in-depth analyses that are necessary,” she said.

Joe Balash, a high level official with the Department of Interior who is overseeing the environmental review process, disagrees.

“The contention by some of the critics that we’re rushing this I think is misunderstood,” Balash said. “In fact, we’re prioritizing this. It is a big deal to this administration to get this done and to get it done sooner rather than later.”

He says the speed can be attributed to the fact that Department of Interior has a core team whose only job is to work on this.

There were also people at the meeting who are opposed to the idea of drilling in the refuge altogether. Sarah James, a Gwich’in elder and leader from Arctic Village, says she’s concerned that drilling in the refuge would negatively affect the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

“We’re a caribou people, we use every part of the caribou from time beginning,” James said. “And we’re proud to be caribou people. And we don’t want to change that.”

Balash says the initial legislation passed by Congress in late 2017 requires that an oil and gas lease sale be held in ANWR, so not holding a lease sale is not an option. But he encourages those who are opposed to drilling to provide detailed comments with their concerns.

“The commitment I made to the Gwich’in people when I’ve met with them previously is: I can’t change what Congress said to do, but I can listen,” Balash said. “And the more they tell me, the more feedback we get from them, the better we can execute this law and this program and the more we can protect the things that matter most.”

Additional meetings are planned over the next two weeks in several Interior and North Slope villages, as well as Anchorage and Washington D.C.