An Alaska agency is pressing ahead with ANWR plans despite lease suspensions

The state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority will spend up to $1.5 million for pre-exploration work on its seven Arctic National Wildlife Refuge leases.

By Yereth Rosen - June 28, 2021
The Canning River flows through the coastal plain in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Katrina Liebich / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Alaska state agency that was the main buyer of oil leases in a controversial auction held for land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is pressing ahead with its plans for development, even though the Biden administration has suspended those leases and put a halt to any exploration activity.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned economic development corporation, will spend up to $1.5 million for pre-exploration work on the seven ANWR leases it acquired.

The resolution authorizing the spending plan was approved last week by the AIDEA board. The work is to include permitting for a seismic survey to start in 2022, along with data collection, stakeholder engagement and other tasks, according to a memorandum by AIDEA Executive Director Alan Weitzner.

AIDEA has moved quickly on its plans. The day after the board approved the $1.5 million spending plan, AIDEA published a request for proposals from contractors to engage in “responsible development and impact studies, data collection, and the required regulatory permitting to support a phased, multi-year seismic acquisition program.”

Interior Secretary Haaland on June 1 suspended the leases sold in the Trump administration auction. She announced that more environmental study is needed before any activity on those leases can be allowed to occur.

But AIDEA, which holds seven of the nine leases transferred in the waning days of the Trump administration, has taken a defiant stance, contending that the suspension is not legally valid.

In a June 11 letter sent to Interior, AIDEA asserted that it holds “valid and enforceable leases covering 365,775 acres” within the coastal plain and that the leases give it “legal, exclusive rights of access to explore for reserves and develop the tracts.” Interior’s additional review “raises serious questions” about compliance with the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act and other laws, the letter said.

“We will continue to assert our legal rights as authorized for the responsible development of the subject leases,” said the letter, which was sent to Laura Daniel-Davis, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

The newly approved $1.5 spending plan was criticized by environmental and Native activists who spoke during public testimony at the start of Wednesday’s online board meeting. Those critics characterized the spending as an extension of bad environmental and economic policy.

Nauri Toler, an environmental justice organizer with the group Native Movement, said AIDEA’s continued investment in ANWR oil development is out of step with economic reality.

“I urge you to read the room. The cards are stacked against this project,” said Toler, who wrote a recent op-ed published in the Anchorage Daily News that questioned AIDEA’s strategies.

Toler, who is Inupiat, also said that contrary to frequent assertions by AIDEA that the people of the ANWR region support oil development, there is significant opposition to drilling even among the Inupiat people of Kaktovik, which is often portrayed as a bastion of development support.

Rick Steiner, an Anchorage-based environmental consultant, questioned whether AIDEA is legally qualified to bid on and hold leases, as it is a state-owned entity. State-owned corporations and agencies are not listed in law as qualified to bid on federal oil leases, and there could be some antitrust issues that disqualify AIDEA, said Steiner, who has petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate the matter.

There are other reasons to drop the program, Steiner said in his testimony. “Given the fossil fuel climate disaster that we are living in at the present, It is simply immoral, unethical and unconscionable that AIDEA continues to ignore this reality and continues to invest in oil development,” he said.

But representatives of pro-development organizations spoke in favor of the spending.

Rick Whitbeck, Alaska state director for Power the Future, a pro-industry group, called those testifying against AIDEA’s plans members of the “eco-left” and said their arguments about environmental impacts were “laughable, hogwash, lies, false, not true.”

“Just because this vocal super-minority continues to say it doesn’t give their drivel any credibility. It just makes them self-identify more and more as the lunatic fringe,” Whitbeck said in his testimony. He asserted that the “rational, clear majority” of Alaskans supports oil development and that AIDEA’s strategy is correct. “To my eco-extremist friends on the line, let me be clear: AIDEA’s leases are binding regardless of how you feel, because feelings don’t override facts,” he said.

AIDEA was nearly the only bidder in the January ANWR lease sale. According to statements from AIDEA officials prior to the sale, the organization’s bidding was intended as a backstop in case major oil companies shunned the lease sale. That turned out to be the case. Only two other entities submitted bids: an Australian independent bid on a single tract on the refuge’s border with state land, and an Anchorage investment group bid on another tract.