The Gwich’in Steering Committee (GSC) is leading a decades-long campaign to protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from destructive fossil fuel development. The Gwich’in Nation, comprised of fifteen small villages across northeast Alaska and northwest Canada, established the GSC in 1988 at its then first full gathering in 150 years, which was called to defend their sacred land against proposed oil and gas drilling. The Nation passed the Resolution to Protect the Birthplace and Nursery Grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and has reaffirmed the reslolution at every bi-annual gathering since then.
This year, the Nation added language from Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.
Protections for the Arctic Refuge were undone by the 2017 Tax Cuts And Jobs Act, which mandated leasing of the sacred Coastal Plain for drilling and exploration despite lack of consent from the Gwich’in Nation and other impacted Indigenous Peoples. Since then, the GSC has secured a string of successes in a strategy to engage companies that finance and insure oil and gas projects. These wins are edging the Gwich’in closer to the ultimate goal of full and permanent protections for the sacred land and the caribou that depend on it.
As of August 2022, all corporate interests exited leases to develop the Coastal Plain for oil and gas. Two of the three entities that purchased leases during the 2021 sale, Regenerate Alaska (a subsidiary of 88 Energy) and Knik Arm Services, quietly let go of the tracts that they bid on and received a full refund from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Additionally, legacy lease holders Chevron and Hilcorp (via BP) – which purchased exploratory tracts in the 1980s but never released the findings – paid millions of dollars to exit those leases this year: a significant indicator because these were the only companies that could assess the potential for fossil fuel under the Coastal Plain.
“These exits clearly demonstrate that international companies recognize what we have known all along: drilling in the Arctic Refuge is not worth the economic risk and liability that results from development on sacred lands without the consent of Indigenous Peoples,” the GSC said.
When companies develop extractive projects without free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), they face material and reputational losses. This may be a reason lessees left the Arctic Refuge and why no major oil and gas companies showed up to bid on leases in the first place. Net income from the sale is less than $10 million of the projected $1.8 billion revenue – a .54% return, which does not factor payouts to legacy lease holders or costs associated with ongoing litigation and the need for a second feasibility study.
Companies in both the banking and the insurance sectors have also recognized the risk of development without FPIC. After the GSC surveyed the industry and produced a scorecard rating policies, seventeen international insurers have come alongside twenty-nine global banks – which includes all major U.S. and Canadian banks – with policies that preclude the finance, underwriting, and insuring of new oil and gas projects in the Arctic Refuge.
The U.S. insurance industry is lagging on such commitments. Only one company has a policy to avoid new oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, but it is unclear if their definition of the Arctic encompasses the Arctic Refuge. To date, the company has not responded to the GSC’s queries for clarification.
- Issue clear, public statements refusing to provide insurance and investments to any energy exploration, development, production, and transportation in the Arctic Refuge and across the Arctic Region;
- Adopt a formal policy to prohibit new insurance products or the extension of existing insurance contracts to cover the exploration, production, and transportation of oil and gas in the Arctic Refuge;
- Avoid financing oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge by ruling out investments in companies involved in the Arctic Refuge development and those that do not have policies prohibiting their own involvement in the Arctic Refuge; and
- Enact a comprehensive policy that includes a commitment to operationalizing Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent.
While the GSC’s strategy to engage corporate actors gains momentum, several challenges prohibit full protection of the Coastal Plain from future development. Currently, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), a state agency that typically supports small business enterprise, holds nine tracts of land with the desire but no clear plan to develop oil and gas. Secondly, despite in-person engagements with legislators, round-the-clock lobbying from allies, and promises that permanent protections would be restored in budgetary bills, the Arctic Refuge was left out of the Inflation Reduction Act in August. This is of particular concern because the Tax Cuts And Jobs Act mandated a second lease sale to be held by 2024.
Corporate decision makers and those shaping policy that impacts the Arctic Refuge and the people who depend on it for subsistence and cultural practice must consider that 1) the Gwich’in have never consented to development on this sacred land – a concern brought to the U.S. government multiple times by the United Nations, and 2) the Gwich’in and other Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic are experiencing impacts of the climate crisis four times faster than the rest of the world.
The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge is irreplaceable. The Gwich’in call it Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit – the Sacred Place Where Life Begins – and it has sustained the Gwich’in since time immemorial. When the public and private sector stand alongside the Gwich’in to protect their sacred land from harmful drilling and extractive practices that lack FPIC, they show respect for Indigenous human rights and help the land and planet for future generations.
Photo via the Gwich'in Steering Committee.