A quest for Alaska oil sparks a fight over tribal sovereignty

The Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was established to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity including nesting waterfowl, other migratory birds, dall sheep, bears, moose, wolves, wolverines, other furbearers, caribou, and salmon; to fulfill international treaty obligations; to provide for continued subsistence uses; and to ensure necessary water quality and quantity. Steve Hillebrand / USFWS

Every spring, the shallow ponds and spruce forests of the Yukon Flats, in Interior Alaska, stir with the flapping of scoters and scaups, the laugh-like yelps of white-fronted geese and the high-pitched whistle of wigeons. Up to 2 million birds arrive each year to nest in some of North America’s most productive waterfowl breeding grounds. Along with salmon, moose and other wildlife, they provide food for the human residents of the region, where a half-gallon of milk can cost $7.99.

“It’s not only our subsistence,” said Rochelle Adams, a member of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government of Fort Yukon, who is from the villages of Fort Yukon and Beaver. “It’s our connection to the lands and waters. It’s a part of our identity, because our people have lived here since our creation.”

This summer, drilling rigs will join the wildlife in the Yukon Flats, as Hilcorp Alaska, a private company with a reputation for regulatory violations, explores for oil and gas. Hilcorp is operating under a 2019 agreement with Doyon Ltd., an Alaska Native regional corporation, which owns 1.6 million acres of mineral rights bordering the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The companies’ plans have raised concerns among local tribes and exposed the complicated dynamics between for-profit Alaska Native corporations and sovereign tribal governments.

Soon after Doyon announced its deal with Hilcorp, the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government passed a resolution opposing oil and gas development in the Yukon Flats, citing worries about environmental degradation, threats to traditional ways of life and infringements on tribal sovereignty. Last fall, the board of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 tribal governments in Alaska’s Interior, also opposed the project. “What we get to consume here is the most unadulterated food on the planet,” said Dacho Alexander, a Gwichyaa Zhee Tribal Government council member and former chief. “Our water is clean. Our environment is clean. There’s just simply no dollar amount that you could put on those places.”

To Alexander, Doyon’s push to explore for fossil fuels illustrates a “major disconnect” between Alaska Native regional corporations and tribal governments. Unlike federally recognized tribes, which are sovereign nations, Alaska Native corporations are for-profit companies owned by Alaska Native shareholders, who receive annual dividends of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. They were created under the 1971 federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to give tribal members economic autonomy, primarily through ownership of natural resources. Today, Doyon is the largest private landowner in Alaska, with more than 20,000 shareholders.

Doyon’s press releases assert that Hilcorp’s drilling this summer will not cause environmental damage. Yet opponents worry that exploration could lead to long-term development, and they have concerns about Hilcorp’s environmental record: The company, which bought all of BP’s fossil fuel assets and interests in Alaska in 2020 and is now one of the state’s biggest oil and gas producers, has been responsible for numerous natural gas leaks in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. In a 2015 letter to Hilcorp, the chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates fossil fuel production in the state, wrote that regulatory noncompliance is “endemic” to the company’s approach. Since then, Hilcorp has accrued three times more citations than each of Alaska’s biggest oil producers during that time, ConocoPhillips and BP, according to state documents High Country News obtained via a records request.

Read the entire story here: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.8/north-oil-a-quest-for-alaska-oil-sparks-a-fight-over-tribal-sovereignty

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.