The slick politics of ANWR oil

Published January 1, 2002

According to Petroleum News Alaska, the company was created to provide investment and business opportunities, employment, and training for tribal members. It expects to start operations this winter, to expand oil and gas development activities in the Arctic region.

The new enterprise, Gwich’in Oilfield Services, offers some fascinating insights into the slick politics of militant environmentalism.

Not opposed to drilling

The majority owner in the new drilling enterprise is none other than the Gwich’in Indians Tribal Council. Those are the same Gwich’in Indians who for years have been poster children for the cause of opposing oil exploration in the flat, featureless coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

But nearly 90 percent of the Gwich’ins live in Canada. Only 800 live in Alaska. The Alaskan Gwich’ins live some 250 miles from the coastal plain, if one travels along the route caribou use to migrate to and from ANWR.

As the crow flies, the Indians’ Arctic Village is 140 miles across the all-but-impassable Brooks Range. Those majestic mountains–the ones seen in all the misleading ads and news stories opposing ANWR oil exploration–are 30 to 50 miles from the coastal plain. (It’s amazing how a telephoto camera lens can make them look so close.)

The Gwich’in Tribal Council plans to drill in a 1.4-million-acre land claims area governed by the Indians. This is an area the same size as what’s been proposed for exploration in ANWR. The Indians’ proposed drill sites (and a potential pipeline route) are just east of a major migratory path where the caribou often birth their calves.

Back in the 1980s, the Alaska Gwich’ins leased 1.8 million acres of their tribal lands for oil development. (No oil was found.) Any reservations they may have had about the latest leasing plans were apparently very muted.

Not in your backyard?

It is difficult to grasp how drilling for oil in their own backyards is perfectly OK, but exploration on public and Inuit Eskimo lands 140 miles away somehow “threatens their traditional lifestyle.”

It’s equally difficult to condone the Gwich’in Indians’ willingness to collect countless thousands of dollars from environmental groups, to place full-page ads in major newspapers, appear in television spots, and testify on Capitol Hill in opposition to ANWR exploration–and then lease more of their tribal lands for drilling. But none dare call it hypocrisy.

Government geologists say ANWR could contain as much as 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That’s enough to replace all our Persian Gulf imports for 10 years or more. At peak production levels, ANWR could provide 1/10 of total U.S. oil needs.

Developing this critically needed domestic energy supply could also create 735,000 jobs, save us from having to send hundreds of billions of dollars to OPEC, and generate tens of billions in royalty and tax revenues to defend and rebuild our nation.

All these benefits would result in the disturbance of about 2,000 acres–less land than the terrorists destroyed or damaged in New York City–in a refuge the size of South Carolina. And any drilling would be done in the dead of winter, using ice airstrips, roads, and platforms that will melt when spring arrives.

Eskimos who actually live in ANWR want the same benefits the Gwich’ins seek.

As Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation President Fenton Rexford notes, the Eskimos are tired of using five-gallon buckets for sanitation, because they don’t have toilets, running water, or a sewer system. They also understand the national security issues at stake here.

No wonder they support ANWR exploration by an 8:1 margin.

Paul Driessen is principal of Global-Comm Partners in Fairfax, Virginia, and a senior policy analyst for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.