John Hopson Jr.

Congress must not break trust with Alaska and its Native people

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, but that wasn’t the end of the transaction. Just more than a century later, and nearly a decade after Alaska became the 49th state, what would turn out to be the biggest oil field in North America was discovered in 1968 at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope. The find, and the need for an 800-mile pipeline to develop it, gave new urgency to settling the Native land claims not only along the proposed corridor but for all of Alaska. Negotiations that had progressed in fits and starts throughout the 1960s culminated 50 years ago with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. It included the selection of 44 million acres and nearly $1 billion for the regional corporations created in the bill. Some of the promises of ANCSA have been kept; others have yet to be fulfilled. Right now in Congress, Democrats are trying to break one of them in their proposed budget reconciliation bill. A promise for economic freedom for the Native Village of Kaktovik was made by Congress under ANCSA through the formation of the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation. The first step in keeping that promise was finally fulfilled 46 years later through the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The Democrats’ bill would repeal the 2017 provision requiring lease sales to be held for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was explicitly set aside for development in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and it would revoke the leases purchased by the State of Alaska this past January in the first of those sales. On his first day in office, within the executive order that canceled the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline was another section ordering a moratorium on all activity within the ANWR coastal plain to effectively nullify the legal lease sale that had occurred earlier that month. In the process, the actions of Biden and congressional Democrats will not only expand our trade deficit, end our energy independence and weaken our national security, they are robbing Alaskans of economic opportunity and breaking trust with the Native landowners by denying them potentially billions of dollars in royalty income. The Native Village of Kaktovik, the only community inside the coastal plain, was actively involved in the process of developing the environmental impact statement for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The Biden administration’s stated goal is “strengthening Tribal consultation,” yet it tossed away this consultation with the only Tribe within the coastal plain because it doesn’t fit their narrative. Kaktovik and Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat support the leasing program, and are frustrated by recent decisions to undermine their participation in Tribal consultation and government-to-government engagement. The actions by Biden and congressional Democrats to undo the progress toward fulfilling federal obligations are not only wrong, they are an injustice. Their actions are also out of step with Democrats’ goals to reduce carbon emissions. With prices at a seven-year high, we are importing more oil from Russia than any time in U.S. history, according to the most recent data from the Energy Information Administration. Average imports from Russia per month so far in 2021 are 22 million barrels, which is 34% higher than 2020, and 18% greater than the previous record for a year set in 2010 of 18 million barrels per month. We’ve already imported more oil from Russia this year than we did in all of 2017 or 2018. Not only are we enriching President Vladimir Putin and his cronies in the oil business, we are supporting their production from the very Arctic the Democrats are trying to lock up here in Alaska. Thirty percent of the oil production for state-owned Gazprom comes from Arctic fields and there are multiple exploration and development projects in the Russian Arctic both on and offshore that Americans are now financing at the pump thanks to Biden administration policies supported by his friends in Congress. On top of this, recent court decisions have delayed North Slope projects under rulings that require the modeling of downstream carbon emission impacts, yet our own government isn’t holding itself to the same standard through imports of foreign oil. Why not? Overlooked or ignored is the fact that the practices of flaring or venting natural gas to produce oil are illegal under state law. In 2020 the Climate Leadership Council determined that North Slope energy production is “carbon cheap” and has fewer emissions than the Lower 48 and global averages. Keeping its trust with the people of Alaska is not only required of the federal government, but encouraging cleaner U.S. production that benefits those closest to it is in alignment with all of our goals for environmental, social and economic justice. The Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, the Native Village of Kaktovik and the State of Alaska are unified in the defense of our rights under federal law guaranteeing self-determination and in turn to provide economic opportunities for the people we represent. These rights would be erased under the current proposed budget reconciliation bill and Department of Interior actions, and we urge members of Congress to reject these destructive policies in the name of Indigenous rights, environmental justice and racial equality. Mike Dunleavy is the 12th Governor of Alaska. John Hopson Jr. is the president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, which was formed in 2015 as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation to create a communication network among Arctic Slope communities to establish a unified voice for our region and people. Its members include the Native Village of Kaktovik and Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation.
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