Oil rigs may soon be coming to the nation’s largest wildlife refuge. We find out what that could mean to the people who live there.
This week’s show was produced by Katharine Mieszkowski and edited by Kevin Sullivan.
Amy Martin and Nick Mott of the podcast Threshold reported and produced this episode.
Special thanks to Eva Kalea, Caysi Simpson, Brook Artziniega, Lynn Lieu, Hana Carey, Dan Carreno, Kara Cromwell, Katie deFusco, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein and Travis Yost. Threshold’s reporting on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was supported by the Pulitzer Center, Montana Public Radio, the Park Foundation, the High Stakes Foundation and Threshold listeners.
Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Najib Aminy and Amy Mostafa. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our host is Al Letson.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
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Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al: We're starting this week's show on a boat near the top of the world. Reporter Amy Martin of the podcast Threshold is about to visit a part of the United States that's been fought over for decades: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.
Vebjorn: Ready to go? You want to come inside?
Al: The captain of the boat is Vebjorn Aishana Reitan. Vebjorn is in early 20s and lives in the village of Kaktovik. If you look at a map of Alaska, it's way up in the Northeast on a small barrier island. Vebjorn is taking Amy and her colleague, Nick Mott, over to the mainland. It's a cloudy day, and as they motor along, the edge of the North American continent slowly emerges from the mist.
Vebjorn: What you see is a gray ocean, a line of green and black that is the land, and above that, big gray... and that's the sky.
Al: The refuge is almost 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, but with no roads, no hotels, no souvenir shops... just wilderness. It's the largest wildlife refuge in the country, home to wolves, Arctic foxes, wolverine, Canada lynx, and all three types of North American bears, and this northern part of it is known as the Coastal Plain. It's where tens of thousands of caribou nurture their newborn calves. It's also where oil companies have been fighting for the right to drill for more than 40 years, a fight they won in 2017 when they got Congressional approval, even though most Americans are still opposed to it.
Al: For Vebjorn, this place of controversy is just his home.
Vebjorn: I don't think people think of it as a refuge, even. We just think of it as our... it's where come from, kind of.
Al: Vebjorn's dad is from Norway. His mom is from Kaktovik, which is actually inside the refuge. She's from the Inupiaq indigenous group.
Vebjorn: I've been on the refuge since before I could walk. My mom would carry me in the back of her parka.
Amy: So it's just been part of your whole life.
Vebjorn: Yeah. The refuge is important to us.
Al: We're spending this hour in the refuge with our partners from the podcast Threshold, whose reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Al: This is a critical moment. Drilling hasn't started yet, but the federal government could auction off oil and gas leases at any time. That's despite the fact that this part of the country is already feeling dramatic effects of climate change.
Al: Amy Martin takes it from here.
Amy: As we move toward the coast, the palette is simple, just like Vebjorn said. It's all grays, muted greens and soft browns.
Amy: Wow, it's beautiful out here.
Amy: We approach the Coastal Plain, and Vebjorn tells us to hop out while he secures the boat. I'm more than happy to comply.
Amy: I'm feeling a little giddy because I'm finally standing in this place that I've been hearing about for my entire adult life.
Amy: We're on a little spit of land, gravelly beach, and a little blustery, windy, dewy, wet... and in front of us is the green tundra of the Coastal Plain. It's gorgeous.
Amy: My first impression is just wide open space. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is huge, almost 20 million acres, or about 30,000 square miles. So if we were to hike from this spot on the Coastal Plain down to the Southern boundary of the refuge, it would be like walking across the state of South Carolina, or the entire country of Austria, without seeing a single town or a house or road.
Amy: You can picture the refuge as having three main regions: brushy foothills in the South, the mighty Brooks range cutting across the middle, and then in the North, where we are, this swath of tundra resting between the mountains and the ocean. And all of these habitats... high Alpine, Riparian, Coastal Plain... they all flow together, with nothing human-made to intrude or interrupt. This variety and connectivity is part of what makes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge unique and highly attractive to so many different species of animals. This is wild country.
Amy: It's just this beautiful, huge, wide open plain.
Amy: I lie down in the grass to listen and look.
Amy: It's like an ocean of grass, and there's this sense of solitude.
Amy: I wanted to talk to the people who have the most at stake if drilling happens here, so Nick and I go to Kaktovik, Vebjorn's home. It's a village of about 300 people, and it's the only town inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now that Congress has approved drilling, people could have rigs operating right next door to them. But it could also mean that this town is suddenly awash in cash, and I wanted to know how people here are feeling about that.
Robert: I know they're to another bear in town. I'm sure I saw one.
Amy: Robert Thompson runs a company that takes people on tours to see polar bears in and around Kaktovik. He had spotted some bears close to his house on the other side of the village, and drove over to get us so we could see them, too. He drives us slowly along the gravel roads, scanning for bears, and then parks on the edge of town facing out toward the ocean. He thinks we have a good chance of seeing a bear here.
Amy: It's a cold, gray, drizzling morning. Oh! Oh! There it is.
Robert: Yep, there is a bear.
Nick: Where do you see him?
Robert: Over there.
Amy: Straight ahead.
Nick: Oh, yeah. Hey, buddy.
Robert: I'm turning sideways.
Amy: There's another one, by the fence.
Amy: Two bears are ambling along the edge of the island, clearly led by their noses. They lower their heads to sniff the ground, and then raise them to sniff the air, in a sort of slow rhythm as they walk. Robert says as the Arctic warms, more and more bears are coming to the refuge, and to Kaktovik.
Robert: And in time, when all the ice is gone in the Arctic Ocean, all the bears are going to have to come to shore. So, they could become extinct.
Amy: Polar bears evolved to spend a lot of time living on sea ice. They sleep on it, they hunt seals and other ocean animals from it; they even build their winter dens in it. But lately, sea ice has been receding into the far north in the summers, and it can carry the bears into really deep water, where they have a hard time finding food. Robert thinks some polar bears are learning to get off the ice before it melts, and instead, make a go of it on land... places like the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and barrier islands like this one.
Amy: This influx of polar bears has been good for Robert's guiding business, but it's also made him keenly aware of what's at stake here.
Robert: I could be here and see the last polar bear in Alaska. That would be sad to see. "Oh, I haven't seen a bear for a few years. Oh, they must be gone." Could be. People don't realize that. This climate change is quite serious.
Robert: Is he still walking?
Amy: Yeah, it's actually... it looks like it's almost... the water is getting deeper and it's maybe about to start swimming? I don't know. You can see a little black nose moving back and forth.
Amy: This is kind of how it went with Robert. We were taking in this really heavy information about the long-term prospects for these animals, while simultaneously getting our minds blown, watching them go about their polar bear business. It's just a few degrees above freezing, the wind is whipping and tossing up big waves, and the polar bear we're watching just strolls into the water, as if it's strolling across a park.
Amy: It's just kind of bobbing around out there in the ocean. It's crazy.
Amy: One of the surreal things about this scene is that when I glance behind me, I can see the village of Kaktovik right there. Kaktovik has actually set up a community polar bear patrolling system to alert residents when bears get close, and to try to haze them away from the village. Robert says all of this is a big change from how it used to be. He grew up in interior Alaska, but he moved to Kaktovik more than 30 years ago.
Robert: But bears weren't really a problem until recently with climate change and the Arctic Ocean is opening up. When I first came, you could see the pack ice from the shore all summer.
Amy: How far away would that be?
Robert: Within sight, like four or five miles. There was ice there all the time. We'd go out there with a boat and sit on the ice and hunt seals, or whales. But now... the last time I went whaling, we didn't see any ice. We won't see any now. It's all gone. There's probably 200 miles of open water right now, and every year it's more.
Amy: And this is one of the main reasons why Robert is strongly opposed to oil development in the refuge. He sees a direct relationship between drilling for oil and losing polar bears. He says he asks his neighbors who support oil development...
Robert: I said, "What do you want to do? Make a lot of money or preserve the culture?" They know it's not right to be that way.
Amy: What would you say to people who are like, "You know what, though? People in Kaktovik, they live here. They need the money to help their community." There's the argument... well, we need the money.
Robert: Well, they can go get a job and work for it. I don't have much sympathy with that because I'm not worried about money. They don't need this money to get ahead in this community because they've still got 95 percent of the North Slope that could be exploited. They don't need to do the refuge to get the money.
Amy: He doubts that the people of Kaktovik will really benefit from that much from drilling. He thinks they're being sold an empty dream.
Robert: And I've seen, in writing, criticism... "Oh, he does trips [inaudible 00:11:16]. He's making money off it." Well, yes, I am. I'm showing people the refuge, and then they go and talk about it, so there's some resentment that there's people here showing the public about it. I'm not going to worry about it. They can't trip me up. I fought for the right of freedom of speech, democracy, and I can say anything I want.
Amy: And when Robert says he fought for that right, he means it very literally. He's a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Robert: My 20th birthday was my first day of duty in Vietnam. And they put me on duty, I said, "It's my 20th birthday, the first day of duty in Vietnam."
Robert: And then I came up here and started living here and hunting, and I said, "They're going to put an oil field where I go hunting, and I don't want to live in an oil field." So, I do what I can to stop that.
Amy: Do you think your experience in Vietnam shapes how you look at some of these environmental issues at all?
Robert: To some degree, because the peace and tranquility you get from being on the land is something that we should all look at, especially after being in a war zone.
Amy: You could feel how you needed that?
Robert: Oh, yeah. A lot of people do.
Amy: One of the questions that comes up again and again in the national debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is, if you've never been to the refuge, if you don't live in Alaska, should you have a say in determining the fate of this place? Robert Thompson says yes. He says you don't have to live in Kaktovik to find meaning and comfort in knowing the refuge is there, without the roads and lights and noise that fill up so much of the rest of this planet.
Robert: Most people won't be out on that refuge. 325 million people in the United States... what percentage will ever get here to know that their place is still... I guess it's [inaudible] future generations that are pristine and nice to go to... so, those are things that people should look at.
Amy: That's not how Matthew Rexford sees it. I went on a tour of this same village with him, and he says this community needs oil development in order to thrive.
Amy: Matthew is 34 years old. He's lived in this village his whole life, and like most people in Kaktovik, he's Inupiat. He's the tribal administrator here, among several other leadership roles.
Matthew: This runway was installed around the Cold War era, 1940s, 1950s and '60s, and the original Kaktovik community settlement was where this old runway used to be in front of us.
Amy: We're driving on a low-lying, narrow strip of land. Matthew says when the Air Force wanted a place to land their planes, they bulldozed the village that was here, and the local people had to rebuild in a new spot on the island... and that was just the first time.
Matthew: In the 1950s, there was a second relocation of the community, and in the 1960s, there was the final relocation of the community to where Kaktovik is right now.
Amy: So the community has been moved three times?
Matthew: Three times.
Amy: Many of the houses are built up on piers that lift them above the puddles and pools seeping up from the permafrost soil, and almost every home is surrounded by the signature gear of Arctic life: four-wheelers and boats, sleds and snowmobiles, plus the occasional muskox hide, whale bone, or set of caribou antlers.
Amy: How have you seen the village change in your 34 years?
Matthew: Oh, so, prior to, I'd say, around the year 2000, our community didn't have a water sewage system installed as it is today, where we can flush a toilet. Prior to that, we had honey buckets, and a lot of this infrastructure in our community... the gravel roads, the power and electricity, the water infrastructure... have been built from the tax revenues for the oil and gas infrastructure development and the pipeline.
Amy: So, when you get to flush a toilet in Kaktovik, you can thank the oil industry.
Matthew: Oh, yes. Yes.
Amy: Although most of the land of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is owned by the federal government, more than 90,000 acres of the Coastal Plain is native land. But, because that native land is part of the refuge, oil development has been prohibited there.
Matthew: Our lands have always been locked up, and no development has ever occurred on our lands in regards to oil and gas development.
Amy: So when you say it's been locked up, you're saying that for your whole life, nobody has been able to make any money from oil and gas development on native lands?
Matthew: Yes, on the Coastal Plain, that is correct. It would take an act of Congress to allow for the Coastal Plain to be opened up.
Amy: And then that happened in December 2017 with the passage of the tax bill. How did that feel to you when you got the news it passed?
Matthew: It felt like a blessing. I mean, the opportunities for our people have been opened up, and if any development does occur in and around our area, we want to ensure that it is done right.
Amy: It's important to keep in mind that Alaska natives never consented to have any of their lands owned by the United States, or anyone else, and the people of Kaktovik don't fully control the small portion of their historic lands that they do own now. There are indigenous people with strong feelings on both sides of this debate, but native voices are often left out of the conversation.
Amy: Matthew's uncle, Fenton Rexford, traveled to Washington, D.C. in March of 2019 to testify in support of drilling. At the time, House Democrats had introduced a bill aimed at stopping it.
Fenton: We are not an exhibit in a museum, nor should the lands that we have survived and thrived for centuries be locked away for the peace of mind from those from faraway places.
Amy: Fenton tells lawmakers about the history of his community.
Fenton: 1947, the U.S. military... a Cold War... arrived on Barter Island and talked only to build a 5,000-foot runway and hangar. We were told to move our village, our homes, our ice cellars; graves and cemeteries were bulldozed and filled in.
Amy: He lists a series of injustices, including the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960, the predecessor to the current refuge.
Fenton: The range was established without our input, popped up [inaudible] without consultation. Our rights to hunt were now restricted further. 1964, the military drafted again the third time to move.
Amy: And then, in 1980 came the bill that doubled the size of the wildlife range and added it to the National Wildlife Refuge system. This looked like a huge conservation win to many people in the lower 48, but Fenton says it felt very different in Kaktovik.
Fenton: The interests of the outside conservation groups have trumped the interests of our people. We have spent over 40 years lobbying Congress to allow oil and gas leasing within the Coastal Plain. Even leasing on our own native lands requires an act of Congress. Since the federal government showed up 152 years ago, the outside groups have used the federal government as a tool to assert their own interest in our land.
Fenton: This school of thoughts amount to nothing more than green colonialism, a political occupation of our land in the name of environment.
Amy: For the general public, the fight over drilling in the refuge is about the value of wildlife and pristine places versus the value of oil. But for many people in Kaktovik, the heart of this conflict is about something else entirely: sovereignty, and all of the ways it's been ignored. For some people in this community, oil development feels like a way to fight back against colonization and put more power in the hands of local people. For others, it feels exactly the opposite; the drilling is just the next step in the colonization process, and that it will only further erode their culture.
Amy: But even if they disagree on oil development, everyone I met in Kaktovik expressed a strong common value, a determination for Inupiat culture to survive.
Al: But the Inupiat people aren't the only Alaskan natives who live here and are fighting to keep their culture alive. We go 150 miles south to find what oil development means in Arctic Village. That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al: This hour, we're in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, meeting people who live here and have the most at stake in what happens to this protected landscape. As we mentioned earlier, Americans have been fighting over whether oil companies should be allowed to drill in this refuge for over 40 years. In 2017, Congress legalized drilling, and the Trump administration says they'll start auctioning off development rights to oil companies soon.
Al: Opponents to drilling are still vowing to stop that from happening. Some of the people who have been leading that fight the longest live in Arctic Village, Alaska.
Amy: Hey, Gideon!
Al: That's reporter Amy Martin of the podcast Threshold, our partners on this week's show. She's walking through this small village perched on the southern boundary of the refuge. She's trying to catch up with Gideon James before he goes out to check his fish nets in his canoe.
Amy: I may very well have literally missed the boat.
Al: Most people in the village are Gwich'in, part of the Athabaskan family of tribes. Their territory extends across a big region in Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada, and caribou are at the center of their culture and their diet. The Gwich'in nation if firmly against drilling on the Coastal Plain. Amy hopped into another boat to find out why.
Amy: I managed to catch Gideon just as he was about to put his canoe into the water.
Gideon: You know how to swim?
Amy: A little bit. Hopefully I won't need those skills.
Amy: He expertly maneuvers us out into the calm waters of the creek, and paddles us toward a net that he has strung up across it. We haven't gone very far when he spots trouble, a muskrat.
Gideon: Muskrat... a muskrat right there. He put around my net. He chewed my net. I'm mad at him.
Amy: But soon, we've got other things to focus on.
Amy: There's one. That's a big one.
Gideon: Big one down there.
Amy: Gideon paddles us up close to the net, and I look down into the clear water.
Amy: You've got at least two more, I think... maybe three more.
Amy: He starts to pull the net up.
Gideon: I feel like... I feel something.
Amy: And soon, he's holding a huge Northern pike in his hands.
Gideon: I'll be God damned, it's a monster.
Amy: It is a monster.
Amy: Yeah. Oh, my God, it's huge.
Gideon: You get a monster in there.
Amy: We spent about a half hour pulling fish out of the net.
Gideon: Want to [inaudible] together.
Amy: And then he paddled the canoe back to the bank. We walked back to his house, each of us carrying a big bucket full of fish.
Amy: Gideon is a maker and a fixer. In one room of his house, he's preparing a boat motor, next to a table where he's making delicate jewelry. It seems like there's nothing he can't do. A hand-painted sign over his work bench says, "Think patient, don't rush, and understand your work." And another handmade sign with a drawing of the drum on it says, "Save Arctic Refuge."
Amy: We start talking about drilling in the refuge, and the jolly tone that Gideon had when we were out in the canoe quickly changes.
Gideon: We don't need to go to the Coastal Plain. We don't need to do that. They think that's progress. That's not progress.
Amy: Gideon is opposed to drilling in the refuge because he wants to protect the big caribou herd here. It's called the Porcupine herd, after the Porcupine River, which winds through the territory that they've shared with the Gwich'in for millennia. The Porcupine herd has the longest land migration route of any mammal on the planet. It can be more than 1,500 miles round trip, and they use the Coastal Plain of the refuge as a cabin ground.
Amy: But that's not the only reason Gideon is against drilling in the refuge; he's also worried about climate change, and he doesn't see how oil development is really improving the lives of Alaska-native people.
Gideon: The issue is the corporation ripoff that's going to keep happening, and our legislators just... they're just puppets to that.
Amy: He traces that disconnect back to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, a huge federal land claims bill passed in 1971. It was intended to settle the question of which parts of Alaska would be owned by its original inhabitants.
Gideon: I study land claim bill... the way it was designed is a ripoff.
Amy: When he first heard about ANCSA, Gideon says, he thought it was going to be good for his community and all indigenous Alaskans, because that's the way the legislation was promoted in places like Arctic Village.
Gideon: In early '70s, I believe all the stuff that they were going to say they were going to do, because it was a promise of the economic boom and better school, and a better health program in Alaska, which never became real. And here, after 40 years, those things are not true. Yeah, those things are not true today.
Amy: For Gideon, the idea that drilling for more oil is going to lift up native people in Alaska is almost insulting. They've had 40 years to do that, he says, and it hasn't happened. From his perspective, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looks like another bad idea, in which outsiders reap the rewards and the Gwich'in feel the losses... and that's what climate change looks like to him, too.
Gideon: Climate change is happening, and we just can't sit down and talk about it. We need to do something about it. We need to do something about it.
Amy: Walking through Arctic Village feels more like walking on a country road than walking through town. Other than the main drag, where you can find a store, a church, and the school, the houses are pretty spread out, and it's obvious that people here still rely heavily on the animals of this region to sustain themselves. Fish are laid out on drying racks next to people's homes, entryways are decorated with antlers, and children have painted tributes to caribou all over the outside wall of the store. And everywhere I went, I found tiny bits of bone and teeth scattered on the ground. This place is so defined by hunting that the bodies of animals have become part of the soil itself.
Sarah: My name is Sarah James, and I live in Arctic Village, Alaska. It's called [foreign language 00:28:06]. That means, a creek with a high bank.
Amy: Sarah is Gideon's sister. She's in her mid-70s, and she wears her long gray hair in a ponytail down her back. As she leads me into her house, we walk by buckets on her porch, holding thick bones that were clearly part of a living animal not too long ago.
Sarah: I've been cutting meat.
Amy: The bones are stripped clean, but still stained red with fresh blood. She says they came from a moose recently shot by a young man in the village.
Sarah: And he shot that, his first bull moose, so he gets to distribute.
Amy: Although the Gwich'in have always hunted a variety of animals, the backbone of the culture is the caribou. In fact, a central Gwich'in story tells of a hunter who traded part of his heart for a caribou heart, so the animals and the people would always be linked together. For many Gwich'in people, there's really no distinction between keeping the Porcupine herd alive and keeping their culture alive. They're completely intertwined. So, the prospect of drilling in the caribou cabin grounds and disrupting the animals at a very sensitive stage in their life cycle feels deeply threatening.
Amy: Some people on the pro-oil side say the Gwich'in are blowing this whole thing out of proportion, that oil development isn't really a threat to the Porcupine herd. They point to pictures of caribou from other herds grazing next to pipelines as evidence that drilling and a wildlife habitat can coexist. But even though some caribou can adapt to industrial development, it's clear that these animals prefer a habitat with no human disturbance. They thrive in big, wild, cold landscapes. And over the last 20 years, caribou herds across the polar North have faced precipitous declines. They've gone from nearly five million animals to just over two million.
Amy: The causes for those declines vary, but there's one species behind them all: us. As we long and mine and drill and build roads further and further north, and warm the climate, caribou numbers are quickly going down.
Amy: Sarah says she started hearing that the cabin grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd might be open for drilling in the 1980s.
Sarah: And so I went to my brother that time, and I told my brother, "Well, how come they keep killing... they want to do gas and oil development up there?" And he said, "Yeah. Oil company are huge. They're very huge. We can't stop it, just us. It's too huge. I don't think we'll get anywhere with it." We shall see about it. I told him that, and he said, "There might be a way." "Let's work on that," he said, so I laugh.
Amy: And she got to work.
Sarah: I was one of the tribal council then, and the tribal council chose me to deal with environment issues.
Amy: So Sarah started going to meetings throughout the region, learning about what was going on up on the coast and how it might affect the caribou. She says she definitely wasn't working alone. Lots of folks were involved, including Inupiaq people, who are also concerned about protecting the caribou and their own communities.
Amy: In 1987, they succeeded in getting the U.S. and Canada to sign an international treaty designed to protect the Porcupine caribou herd, and the language of the treaty made it clear that the animals needed to be protected both for their own sake, and for the sake of the people who depended on them, both nutritionally and culturally.
Amy: The treaty also established the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, which still exists today, and is supposed to be consulted on development projects that could impact the herd. But the Gwich'in knew the allure of the oil was going to continue to turn the heads of the big companies, and the treaty lacked an enforcement mechanism. By itself, it wasn't enough to prevent drilling on the Coastal Plain. So, members of the new management board started going out to villages and talking to people.
Sarah: They went to each village and talked to elders... what we should do. And the one elder, Mary Kay... she said, "Well, we should call the Gwich'in nation back together and take it on from then."
Amy: Sarah says this idea of bringing the whole Gwich'in nation together to figure out how to respond to the threat of oil development quickly gained traction among the Gwich'in.
Sarah: So, they called Gwich'in gather here in Arctic Village. June 5 came, 1988; people start coming, and I think we have 15 chief, U.S. and Canada, and 15 elders and one youth from each village.
Amy: Sarah says, back in what she calls bow and arrow days, the semi-nomadic life of the Gwich'in meant that all of the different sub-groups met and mingled frequently. But the colonization process had changed that, and the various Gwich'in bands had become much more separate from each other.
Amy: At the 1988 gathering, Sarah says they were reminded that they shared a common language and history, and common concerns for the future.
Sarah: And it's just like a rebirth of the nation, the whole... everybody getting to know each other. There's some graveyard of their relatives here they want to visit.
Amy: One native-owned media organization was allowed to film parts of the event.
Amy: There were non-Gwich'in people who came to the gathering, too: government officials, representatives from conservation groups, and Sarah says they brought their non-Gwich'in ways of doing things with them.
Sarah: They came up with a agenda, but when the start the meeting, those elders took over the meetings and say, "We don't need this agenda," so they tore up the agenda and said, "We'll take it from here."
Amy: Whatever plan the outside groups may have had, the elders said, "No, thank you. This is our gathering and we'll do it our way."
Sarah: And then somebody presented a talking stick. It's just a stick with an eagle head on it. And then they said, "We'll talk with the stick," and we had to be in the center of the whole community hole. So, that's how they ran the meeting.
Amy: And almost everything happened in Gwich'in.
Speaker 12: [foreign language 00:34:49]
Amy: The video doesn't give names for individual speakers, but it does provide translations, and this man is saying, "Oil burns when the trucks and cats work and the wells are drilled. The oil spreads all over the caribou's food."
Speaker 12: [foreign language 00:35:07]
Amy: He says, "What will become of our children when the caribou go?"
Amy: The story of the outside groups creating an agenda, and the elders promptly tossing it out... I think this is an important detail. One of the meta-battles surrounding the fight over drilling in the refuge is who controls the narrative. Are pro-oil groups using some Inupiaq people to advance their agenda? Are conservation groups doing the same with the Gwich'in?
Amy: But both of those lines of thought give all the agency to white people. In Sarah's narrative, the Gwich'in are the protagonists. They know what they want, and they make it happen. She's not describing some hapless group of people who can easily be manipulated by outsiders.
Speaker 13: And together, here, we're going to fight in a good way to teach many white people out there who do not understand our ways. We've got to teach them.
Amy: Sarah says it quickly became clear that there was no disagreement among the Gwich'in about the goal; what they were trying to figure out was a strategy.
Sarah: They know that they're against oil and gas development, but how are we going to do it? And then they say, "The only way we're going to win is unless we do it in a good way, educate the world in good way, and make friends, because we can't do it ourself. It's too huge."
Amy: So, they wrote a resolution, a short, clear message saying who they were and what they wanted. It says the Gwich'in have a right to continue their way of life, and that their culture depends on the caribou. Therefore, oil and gas development should be prohibited in the 1002 area, the part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where drilling has now been approved.
Kara: And we have in writing with our signatures on it, I think they'll know at least we have one nation of Gwich'in people that are saying no, and we mean no.
Sarah: We are the caribou people. If it wasn't for the caribou, we won't be here today. To take away of who you are and be proud of who you are, that's genocide.
Amy: Sarah has a reason to use that particularly chilling word. The United States has done this before. In the lower 48, many Native American tribes were as tightly linked to bison as the Gwich'in are to caribou, and in the 19th century, the federal government subsidized the mass slaughter of the bison herds in part as a way to starve native people and break their cultures.
Amy: In other words, the destruction of the buffalo was part of the genocide of Native Americans, and Sarah and other Gwich'in people say there's a real danger of repeating that dark history with the caribou.
Sarah: Look like we made the right decision back in 1988. We overcame many, many battles, because all American out there, along with us, spoke loud and clear they don't want a gas and oil development, and I believe it's going to stay that way. I believe we're going to win.
Al: The oil industry has already won a big battle just by getting drilling approved. Up next, Amy asks why they're fighting so hard to drill in the refuge when the race is on to transition to renewables?
Kara: What do you do in the meantime? Do you go back to candlesticks? I mean, I don't think so.
Al: That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al: We've been spending this hour in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, hearing from people who live there about what oil and gas development would mean for them. But we haven't heard from one group that has a big stake in this decision: the oil and gas industry. Amy Martin from the podcast Threshold headed to a nondescript office building in Anchorage to find out why drilling in the refuge is so important to them. Here's Amy.
Amy: Kara Moriarty is the president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
Kara: And we're the professional trade association for the oil and gas industry in Alaska, so our job is to advocate on behalf of the entire industry to continue to the long-term viability of the industry for the state.
Amy: I met Kara in her office. You'll hear some fans flipping on and off a bit as we talk, and she started out by explaining that even if there were a lease sale in the refuge this year, oil probably wouldn't start flowing from the Coastal Plain until the 2030s. She said it would take a dozen years or so to get through the lawsuits, regulations, and exploration process leading up to drilling. So, companies that bid for the right to drill in the refuge are betting that the demand for oil will continue far into the future.
Kara: It's still going to be the majority of fuel source that supplies the globe's injury needs for the next 30 to 40 years, so why wouldn't we then, as a country, want to develop in our backyard, where we know we have the strictest environmental standards? If you look at all the world estimates for the next 30 years, the demand for oil does not go away.
Amy: So one thing that I think I know some people would say hearing you is... you said why wouldn't we develop it? I think some people would say, because there's lots and lots of oil available in the world already in places that are more developed or already have impact, but this is a place that is pretty special in the world. Why not... even if we have to develop it someday, 50 years down the road, and we're having some kind of massive crisis... why not save it for then instead of going there now when it is really... it's a special habitat that has a lot of wildlife in it?
Kara: We have been saving it. We've been saving it for 40 years already.
Amy: And most Americans want to keep saving it. The refuge is federal land, owned by all U.S. citizens. And although a majority of Alaskans support drilling in the refuge, two thirds of registered voters in the country overall oppose it, according to a recent poll.
Amy: So I wanted to hear Kara's best argument for why those people should change their minds. Why should the oil industry be allowed to use public land for private gain? Why should Americans say yes to oil development in the refuge?
Kara: Oil basins, they peak and they decline. It's just the nature of the business. And so, you have to constantly be replacing that decline and increasing it, and the potential. So, really, this oil is going to be available in 2032. It's not about getting the oil right now. It is about having the oil for the next generation to come.
Amy: So, I think another big argument... you just actually touched on it... would just be climate change.
Amy: And a lot of people would say, why should we invest resources and basically set up the momentum toward getting more fossil fuels out of the ground when they're warming the planet? And what's your response to that?
Kara: Well, I think it's very unpractical to say that we're going to be without the use of fossil fuels in the next three decades, because there's not enough alternative energy available, and it certainly would not be affordable for consumers.
Amy: It's true that there's currently not enough alternative energy to meet demand. There are a host of reasons for that; transforming a fundamental sector of the economy isn't simple. But renewables are growing fast, and one of the major reasons why they haven't grown faster is the oil industry itself. There are indirect ways that the oil industry has constrained the growth of alternatives, things like tech subsidies and crowding out of competitors.
Amy: But oil companies have also taken direct actions that have blocked the growth of renewables, including spending millions of dollars on campaigns to suppress climate science and confuse the public about the dangers of global warming. Lately, the big oil companies have been changing their tune on that, but what they say is sometimes very different from what they do. As just one example, we can look at BP, which is a member of Kara's trade organization.
Amy: They publicly say they support putting a price on carbon to help reduce emissions, but in 2018, BP spent more than 10 million dollars to help defeat a carbon-pricing ballot initiative in the state of Washington. Even so, Kara says oil companies are helping to develop new, greener technologies.
Kara: And the reality is, my very member companies, globally, are the companies investing in the technology to help with carbon capture, with switching from gas stations to electrical stations for cars. We're not bad, and we're not bad for wanting to continue to meet the global demand for the use of oil and gas. And so, as we continue to develop, we know that we're going to continue to improve.
Amy: In 2018, the world's biggest oil and gas companies together spent around one percent of their budgets on clean energy. That's not nothing, but many citizens say the oil industry is still doing a lot more to hurt the climate than to help it. So they've been using a new tool: pressuring banks not to invest in oil development, and that pressure has yielded some results.
Amy: The European Investment Bank has pledged to end financing for all fossil fuel projects after 2021, and several other international banks have specifically called out the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a place where they will not invest in oil and gas. In 2019, the first U.S. bank joined the club; Goldman Sachs announced they will not finance any new drilling or oil exploration in the Arctic.
Amy: It's unclear if or how much all of this might affect the outcome of a lease sale, but the public opposition, combined with the relatively low price of oil right now and the high cost of extraction in this remote area, make drilling in the refuge a riskier proposition than most. But there could be a less obvious prize some companies hope to claim.
Kara: Honestly, there's probably a lot more gas in the Coastal Plain than there is oil. I mean, we have hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas on the North Slope.
Amy: If you look globally, natural gas is the real story of energy development in the Arctic. The gas industry is booming in the Russian North, and like Kara said, the North Slope of Alaska has enormous natural gas reserves, too. The problem in Alaska, though, is transportation. Attempts to build a gas pipeline similar to the oil pipeline that cuts through the state have gone nowhere so far. But oil and gas executives must be casting their eyes longingly on all that untapped gas in the refuge.
Amy: And even though both the oil and gas markets are considered to be in a state of oversupply right now, Kara says we have to keep opening up new areas for drilling.
Kara: What we have today will not be enough to supply the next 30 to 40 years, so we have to add resources as we continue this transition to other sources of energy.
Amy: Even with oil at 56 dollars a barrel?
Kara: Who knows what oil price is going to be? I mean-
Amy: With the discoveries in Texas and-
Kara: Right. I mean, but the discoveries in Texas are still not going to help meet the demand 30 to 40 years from now. So, in the end, you kind of need it all. You have to be able to add to the reserves, as I tried to explain.
Amy: Yeah. I think, though, that that feeling that, in the end, we are going to need it all... I mean, that's kind of the crux of it, is that there are a lot of people saying, "No, actually, the truth of it is we have to stop before we get it all, or we're"... but that's not practical.
Kara: But my answer... my question back to them is, what are you going to do? If you stop, and you know that the alternative energy isn't going to be there, what do you do in the meantime? Do you go back to candlesticks? I mean, I don't think so.
Amy: But that dodges the question. Almost everyone recognizes a transition is necessary here, that we can't just stop all use of fossil fuels tomorrow and go back to candlesticks, as Kara says. Where the real debate lies is over when and how and how fast we're going to make the transition. That's where the question emerges about opening up new fields, especially in pristine wilderness areas.
Amy: Back in the refuge, these arguments feel a world away.
Vebjorn: It's not that important to me to have money, I guess.
Amy: I'm sitting next to Vebjorn Aishana Reitan in his boat again, heading out from Kaktovik to visit the Coastal Plain.
Vebjorn: And I don't think we should sacrifice our land that makes us who we are just so we can have a stake in a industry that's ultimately going to lose, I think. I don't think we should sacrifice what we are just so they can drill oil.
Amy: Vebjorn lands the boat, and we walk around a little bit on the tundra. It's wet and green, with little creeks cutting down to the beach. A hawk hovers in the distance, flapping its wings and staring into the grass with a hunter's intense focus. Some supporters of drilling in the refuge, including many leading politicians, have tried to devalue this place in an attempt to persuade others not to protect it. They've portrayed the Coastal Plain as ugly, unimportant, a wasteland. But to Vebjorn and many other people who live here, people on both sides of the drilling debate, this place is precious. And Vebjorn says if we can't see that and feel it, maybe that says more about us than it does about this place.
Vebjorn: I think people should get out more... good for people to be out and [inaudible 00:50:40]. I think it's important to live outside your house, not just be locked up inside.
Amy: Being with Vebjorn on the Coastal Plain of the refuge made me think of a poem by Wendell Berry. It's called How To Be a Poet, and there are these three lines in the middle that go like this: "There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places."
Vebjorn: It's beautiful in its own way. It's not like a beautiful mountain. You could say it's strikingly empty right now. It's beautiful in a different way.
Al: So what happens next? Well, over a year ago, the Department of the Interior said there would be a lease sale in the refuge before the end of 2019. That didn't happen. They're also not saying anything about when the sale might be, so as it has for the last 40 years, the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains uncertain.
Al: We want to thank Amy Martin and Nick Mott, and the whole team at Threshold, for their work on this week's show. Their podcast tackles one pressing environmental issue each season. The third season of Threshold is all about the refuge. I highly recommend you check it out at ThresholdPodcast.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
Al: Our lead producer for this week's show was Katherine Mieszkowski. The music in this hour was composed by Travis Yost. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Al: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 16: From PRX.