Alaska’s U.S. senators say pending decisions on Ambler road and NPR-A are illegal

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - April 19, 2024
Caribou cross through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in their 2012 spring migration. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd, long one of the largest in North America, has declined precipitiously. The herd's range includes Gates of the Arctic. (Photo by Photo by Zak Richter/National Park Service)
Caribou cross through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in their 2012 spring migration. A 211-mile industrial road that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority wants to build would pass through Gates of the Arctic and other areas used by the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest in North America. Supporters, including many Alaska political leaders, say the road would provide important economic benefits. Opponents say it would have unacceptable effects on the caribou. (Photo by Zak Richter/National Park Service)

Expected decisions opposing the mining road and supporting more North Slope protections draw sharp criticism from the senators and industry supporters

Alaska’s U.S. senators and representatives of resource-extraction industries accused the Biden administration on Thursday of breaking federal laws by rejecting a controversial plan to build a road through the Brooks Range foothills and making final rules that strengthen environmental protections on federal land on the western side of the North Slope.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, held press events on the eve of what is expected to be a set of land policy announcements from the U.S. Department of the Interior on the proposed Ambler Access Project and the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

“They are clearly illegal,” Sullivan, in his news conference with several Republican senators, said of the two pending announcements.

As for the Ambler Access Project, a federal right-of-way is mandated by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, he said. The National Petroleum Reserve, he noted, was established in the 1920s as the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4. “The reserve is meant for oil and gas development,” he said.

Murkowski, in a press call that followed Sullivan’s event, also invoked ANILCA, as did Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.

Skibinksi said the pending decision opposing the Ambler road surprised her because such a road “is expressly provided for in ANILCA.”

“I am surprised that a federal agency decided they didn’t have to follow the law,” she said at Murkowski’s press call.

The ANILCA argument might be subject to debate.

While one section of the law states that Congress has found that a road linking the Ambler Mining District with the Dalton Highway is needed and that the secretary of the Interior “shall permit such access,” another provision says no “withdrawal, reservation, lease, permit, or other use, occupancy or disposition of such lands which would significantly restrict subsistence uses” unless certain conditions are met, including a determination that curtailment of subsistence resources is justified.

A 211-mile road that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority wants to build would connect Ambler Metals LLC.'s proposed copper mines to the Dalton Highway. (Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water map)
 A 211-mile road that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority wants to build would connect Ambler Metals LLC’s proposed copper mines to the Dalton Highway. (Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water map)

The proposed 211-mile road, which is deemed necessary to enable commercial development of mining sites in the Ambler region of Arctic Northwest Alaska, is highly controversial in Alaska.

The project sponsor is the Alaska Industrial and Export Development Authority, a state-owned development agency that is seeking to issue bonds to pay for construction. Under AIDEA’s plan, the road would be for industrial use only, with mining companies paying fees as they use it. Ambler Metals LLC, a joint venture of the Canadian company Trilogy Metals Inc. and the Austrian company South32, would be the prime beneficiary, and copper would be the main product. While the road is intended to open access to the Ambler area, where mine sites have been explored since the 1950s, it would also enable commercial mining all along its route, where other mining claims have been staked.

While Alaska’s congressional delegation and other political leaders support the project, there is opposition in several communities and among some tribal governments along the would-be road corridor.

The proposed road is considered a threat to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest herds in North America. Industrial development in the herd’s habitat would exacerbate recent declines, road opponents argue.

Among the consistent opponents has been the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group, an advisory group representing villages, reindeer herders, guides and others who depend on that herd.

In a 2019 letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, for example, the working group urged that a “no action” alternative be chosen to preclude road construction. “This decision will offer the best chance of protecting the WACH, its users, and its habitat,” the letter said.

Jim Dau, a longtime Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who worked for decades with the Western Arctic herd, has also argued against the road. It “would likely significantly impact caribou migrations,” he said in an opinion column published last week in the Anchorage Daily News.

Also opposing the road is the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of tribal governments in Interior Alaska.

There are Native organizations that support the road, however. Murkowski, in her news conference, noted that some tribes have dropped their earlier opposition.


Natinoal Petroleum Reserve rule builds on existing integrated activity plan

Oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska rule would continue to be allowed under the new rule expected to be finalized on Friday.


When the BLM released its proposed rule last fall,  the agency pointed out ways that it largely aligns with an integrated activity plan that has been in place since 2013.



Lakes and connecting streams in the northeastern part of hte National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska are seen from the air on June 26, 2014. (Photo by Bob Wick/U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
 Lakes and connecting streams in the northeastern part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska are seen from the air on June 26, 2014. (Photo by Bob Wick/U.S. Bureau of Land Management) 


The current plan allows oil leasing on about half of the reserve territory but preserves five designated special areas as ecologically important sites that are closed to oil development. Protections put in place in 2013 would be codified rather than exist as guidelines and thus be more durable, under the new rule. For example, though it allows removal of protections from special areas, the rule expected to be made final on Friday sets up a formal, multistep process that must be followed to do so. And it provides options for adding new special areas to be protected for their habitat and cultural values.


Kara Moriarty, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said the new rule, even though it allows oil development, will violate federal law and cause hardships for energy companies operating in the area.

No matter what integrated activity plan is in force, Moriarty said, the 1976 act that governs the National Petroleum Reserve stipulates that oil development “should occur” in the land unit. But the new rule “says development should not occur unless you can prove no or minimal impact. That’s a complete switch in fundamentals,” she said during Murkowski’s press call.

“This rule is completely ignoring the National Petroleum Reserve Act. The act says that this area is designated for petroleum development. And the rule is not legally durable, because they are trying to change the entire premise of the NPR-A act through regulation,” she said.

For oil companies with existing leases in the reserve, the practical effect will be much more difficulties in winning permits to explore and develop those leases, she said.

Both Murkowski and Sullivan characterized two pending Alaska policies as being motivated by politics. They are efforts to shore up support for President Joe Biden’s reelection, they said.

Murkowski said Biden continues to suffer politically from the administration’s decision last year approving ConocoPhillips’ Willow development. Biden is still being criticized by young voters for that decision, she said.

“So, they’re trying to find a way to prove their environmental cred to younger voters who are not seemingly impressed,” she said. “In the meantime, it’s doing extraordinary damage to Alaska, to our economy, but more importantly — even more important than Alaska’s economy — is the energy, the nation’s security, because that’s what we’re talking about.”

A March 21 message from the Alaska Wilderness League, which was first posted on social media prior to Friday’s announcement, calls for stricter development rules in the National Petroleum Reserve. “We need stronger protections NOW and we need protections for more of the Western Arctic to ensure that there are NO more Willows,” the post says.

Murkowski said some young opponents of Willow development are “being very aggressive” in expressing themselves. She cited an event Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., where she was being honored for her work on behalf of patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). It was disrupted by activists who stormed the state to protest the Willow decision. The encounter was posted on social media by the group, called Climate Defiance.

Sullivan said that by enacting their Ambler and National Petroleum Reserve policies, Biden and officials in his administration “sell out almost every interest of the United States — environmental national security, jobs, our allies — for the far-left radicals simply because he wants to get reelected.”

Sullivan, at his news conference, made his own election pitch.

“When the average American sees these policies, understands these policies, the most important thing we can do is retake the Senate, retake the White House. That’s going to be the ultimate revenge here,” he said.

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