Alaskans split over cashing in on oil

After President Trump signed legislation that will open the 1.5 million acres of land in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, CNN's Bill Weir talks to Alaskans about the plan.

Posted: Jul 24, 2018 5:03 PM
Updated: Jul 24, 2018 5:19 PM

There is a gold rush underway in Alaska.

A rush to tap the black gold of oil beneath the pristine coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the north.

A rush to blast free the yellow gold, silver and copper hidden in the hills above Bristol Bay in the south.

But while the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 was touched off by a few lucky prospectors and the glint of creek-bed precious metal, this one began on election night, 2016.

Donald Trump set out to deregulate the environment on a scale unseen in generations, much to the delight of oil, gas and mining companies eager to tap Alaska's natural wealth.

But as he appointed climate change deniers and anti-EPA warriors to his Cabinet, his win also brought dismay to fishermen and wildlife guides, conservationists and native tribes who believe that the true wealth of the Last Frontier is unspoiled wilderness and unrivaled biodiversity.

This tension pits neighbor against neighbor, tribe against tribe, Republican against Republican in a battle over the future. And like any great debate or heavyweight bout, this fight has a clock.

Both sides are counting the days until election night 2020.

The beauty and politics of ANWR

As the little plane descends into the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I notice our "runway" is nothing more than a grassy meadow, marked by a pair of antlers. The pilot makes a low pass to check for the random caribou or grizzly bear that might complicate our landing, but finds it clear.

The wheels bounce down, the engine goes quiet and we step out onto one of the wildest -- and most controversial -- bits of real estate in America.

This refuge (commonly pronounced as "An-wahr") is the size of South Carolina, made of mountains and sweeping coastal plains that serve as calving grounds for one of the last great migrations left on Earth. Hundreds of thousands of caribou wander down from the Brooks Range each summer to give birth and find relief from the relentless bugs in the coastal breeze.

With bears, both brown and polar, musk oxen, Arctic foxes and the nests of birds from all 50 states, this place is a North American Serengeti, which is why it was first set aside in 1960 and protected by an act of Congress in 1980.

The nation was facing its second oil crisis in a decade at the time, so Congress decided to defer the fate of a plot along the coast the size of Rhode Island. Known as the "ten-oh-two," this has been an ideological battleground, pitting Republican "sourdoughs" -- the nickname for hardy, long-time Alaskans -- like former senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens against their more conservation-minded rivals on the other side of the aisle.

For "drill, baby, drill" Republicans, opening ANWR became a mission, and if successful, "we feel very, very confident we will be able to crack the backs of radical environmentalists," former House Leader Tom DeLay said in 2001. But they never had the votes.

But then, in December of 2017, Sen. Lisa Murkowski saw her chance to do something her father could not. By slipping a provision into the Tax Cut Bill, they could open ANWR with 51 votes instead of 60.

And the President was soon on board.

"One day a friend who's in the oil business called and said 'Is it true that you have ANWR in the bill?'" President Trump said after signing the bill into law. "I said 'I don't know, who cares?' What is that? What does that mean? He said, you know, 'Reagan tried, every single president tried and not one was successful.' I said 'you've got to be kidding. I love it now.' And we fought like hell to get ANWR. He talked me into it!"

Threat to life

"He just scribbled his name over our culture," says Louie John, a Gwich'in elder in Arctic Village. "I don't think that Trump cares about any human issue in this world."

As the northernmost tribe of Native Americans, the Gwich'in live in a necklace of mountain villages bordering the Arctic Refuge where they have survived on caribou for 25,000 years.

In their native language, the coastal plain is "the sacred place where life begins," and scarring it with roads, wells and pipelines would be both a cultural abomination and a legitimate threat to the caribou herd.

While the animals have legal "right of way" on the oil fields of the North Slope, some worry that disturbing the 1002 area will alter migration patterns that have held for millennia.

"Look what happened to the plains Indians and the buffalo," says Faith Gemmill. "That's not going to happen to my people. We're not going to allow that to happen again."

The Gwich'in are the main local allies of environmental groups vowing to use every legal weapon they can to stop the rush to lease two plots of 400,000 acres each to the highest bidder as early as next year.

"We are going to continue to fight at every stage," says Nicole Whittington-Evans of the Wilderness Society. "We won't give up and we will stand by the Gwich'in. We will take the administration to court, we will fight legal battles. We will continue to try to convince members of Congress that this is not the right way to go. We're hopeful for the midterm elections, and then we'll see how the next presidential election turns out."

But in this fight, the greens and the Gwich'in are David against a Goliath of energy companies and the lawmakers that support them. And within this alliance is another tribe of indigenous people, equally defiant and determined.

Pushing back on outsiders

"Now that the US is saying we can finally do this, we have the other side, the environmentalists saying we can't do this! What's wrong with this picture?"

The anger and passion is evident in the voice of Edward Rexford Sr. as he addresses the small crowd gathered in the one school building in Kaktovik. The Department of Interior is gathering public comments, and as the midnight sun blazes outside, they've come to this hamlet of native Alaskans on the edge of the sea, the only community inside ANWR.

"Human rights violations, genocide," Rexford barks. "Lot of folks don't know our history. All the minerals in the mountains, all the gold, all the oil, and they give us only 92,000 acres. Are we gonna stand up for our people?"

Unlike the Gwich'in in the mountains, the Inupiaq lost much of their land in 1971 after oil was discovered in nearby Prudhoe Bay. In exchange, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act gave indigenous people with no concept of profit motive shares in 13 regional corporations, which now reap billions in oil company royalties.

But a stroll through this hardscrabble town provides plenty of proof that those riches do not trickle down. Most folks here cheered the act of Congress and the Donald Trump signature that might finally bring the jobs, wealth and sovereign dignity they crave.

"Without the oil industry, we wouldn't have this police station. We wouldn't have this community school or the roads and we're walking on," Charles Lampe tells me. "We are the best stewards of our land."

I point out that nature lovers from Florida to Iowa feel a protective sense of ownership over ANWR, as they do for Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.

"They will never set foot here," he says, eyes blazing. "I don't think it's right for them to be able to tell us what we can and cannot do with our own land."

As we speak, a woman on a four-wheeler rides by and calls out "Watch out for the nanook!" A skinny polar bear has wandered into town, an event that has become much more common since the Arctic began melting at a staggering rate.

As the bears' seal-hunting grounds disappear, they are forced to spend more and more time on land foraging for whale scraps or whatever nourishment they can find. The people of Kaktovik are seeing more freakish rain storms in winter, blizzards in summer and even had to move the airport away from the coast due to sea level rise.

But profit motive is a powerful force, and many remain eager to tap into the one product that is changing their land in alarming ways. Even as other villages retreat from rising seas (and Sen. Murkowski suggests using oil money to move them) the man in the White House is eager to wave away any fear.

"There's a cooling and there's a heating," President Trump said in January, when asked if he believes the climate is changing. "The ice caps were going to be gone by now, but now they are setting records."

NASA satellites show that they are indeed setting records, but in the exact opposite direction. The polar caps are smaller than they've been since data gathering began and, by some estimates, most populations of polar bears will be extinct by 2050.

Iceland is melting: See climate change in 360˚

Pebble causes new ripples of worry

At the other end of the state, our little plane lands on a beach covered in driftwood, flotsam and the paw prints of creatures great and small: bears, wolves, foxes and a handful of humans hoping to protect it from invasion.

Amakdedori Beach on the Kenai Peninsula is the newest battleground in the war between development and conservation, but instead of oil and gas, this fight is over gold and copper.

"I mean they're basically talking about putting a 175-mile gash across this pristine habitat," says Drew Hamilton, a wildlife guide and grizzly bear expert.

He casts a wary eye on the three strangers walking toward us down the beach. We exchange greetings, eyeing their equipment as they eye ours. "Are you guys working for Pebble Mine?" I ask.

They refuse to answer, admitting only they are a survey crew out of Anchorage studying the tides. I later confirm that they are scouting a possible port for the mine, but their reticence is understandable.

Pebble Mine is one of the most controversial projects in Alaska history.

It all began over a decade ago when a helicopter survey team noticed as strange red spot and Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty discovered a mother lode near Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska.

They estimate that red spot marks 100 million ounces of gold and 80 billion pounds of copper, silver and molybdenum spread deep and wide in a windswept stretch of land north of Bristol Bay.

It could be worth over half a trillion dollars.

But to get it all, Northern Dynasty would need massive amounts of explosives and machinery to turn this pristine wetland into the biggest man-made hole in the world.

Current plans call for a 100-mile natural gas pipeline running alongside an active volcano, across Amakdedori Beach, through 35 miles of wilderness and around or under lake Iliamna. Ore would be trucked and ferried for over 80 miles through pristine habitat. But that is not what worries opponents most.

Blasting and digging an open pit of this size also creates lakes of toxic waste water, tainted with sulfuric acid, and they would be held back by earthen dams -- known as tailings dams -- in a wetland prone to earthquakes.

"If pollution gets into that water supply," Dan Schindler, head of the Alaskan Salmon Project says, "it's going to be nearly impossible to contain."

An ecologist based at of the University of Washington, he's spent his life studying how tens of millions of king and sockeye salmon surge through Bristol Bay each summer, on their way to spawn in the exact lake or stream of their birth.

As these squirming schools defy gravity and current by surging upstream, they inject ocean nutrients into the land, feeding every form of life, from bears to eagles to humans. With a constitutional mandate to protect the run, Alaska limits the catch but still manages to net half of the world's supply of sockeye each July.

Over two billion salmon have been caught in Bristol Bay since records began and fish are the lifeblood of local industry.

In 2014, after three years of peer-reviewed study, the Obama-era EPA determined that the fishery was too valuable to risk and too complex to mine. With a damning report, it invoked a rarely-used provision of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay.

As mining partners bailed out and Northern Dynasty stock dropped from $20 to 20 cents a share, the company spent millions suing the EPA. The "Stop Pebble Mine" stickers faded around Dillingham and Naknek, and it appeared that the fishermen and environmentalists had won.

But then Donald Trump became President.

In May of 2017, hours after meeting with Tom Collier, the CEO of Pebble Partnership, new EPA chief Scott Pruitt withdrew his agency's plan to protect Bristol Bay.

Since Pruitt resigned amid scandal, the new man in charge of the EPA is Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist at one of Pebble Mine's law firms.

But Collier tells me he would have fought for a permit even if Hillary Clinton had won.

"Nobody can guarantee there won't be an accident," he says in his boardroom in Anchorage. On the table sits one of the many core samples from the mine site, mounted over a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. "But we've done a hell of a lot to minimize the possibility of there being an accident on the site."

His office wall holds a picture of his days as a lawyer in Bill Clinton and Al Gore's Interior Department. The self-described Blue Dog Democrat-turned-Independent admits that Amakdedori "won't look great" if they decide to dredge the bay and turn the beach into a massive port. But he argues that some native tribes would appreciate the roads and jobs, and expresses frustration that no one on the other side will consider the possibility that his mine would never harm more than a handful of fish.

"If there is an accident, we've looked at modeling which relies upon the Obama administration's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment," he says. "If tailings come out, it will kill fish for about 20 miles down the north fork of the Koktuli. And that's it. And in 10 years, they'll come back naturally."

That is cold comfort for even the most pragmatic of fishermen.

"The minerals that they're talking about are the kinds of minerals that people use every day, in your cameras, in your cell phones, in Fort Knox," Gaylord Lee Clark tells me as he pilots his salmon boat through Bristol Bay. "You are already exacerbating the situation by demanding the minerals that ... you positively must have for your life, at the same time as you're trying to maintain a salmon run so that you can eat well. What do we do?"

But Drew the bear guide knows what to do: Leave well enough alone.

"I say there are already jobs here. You look at the town of Homer in the bear viewing industry, there are millions of dollars being made here already in its current wilderness state," he says. "You look at the other side of the mountain. There are tens of millions of dollars already being generated in a fashion that can be sustained for decades and decades and decades. Salmon fishing. Why can't we just keep that going? Because when it's gone, it's gone."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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