Reflections on Attending the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Public Scoping Meeting in Anchorage on May 30, 2018

I’m in Anchorage from a few days before heading out to Glacier View for the summer. Typical tourist activity, I attended the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Public Scoping Meeting in Anchorage and participated in a rally outside.

My takeaway from listening to the testimony of stakeholders and the public at the public scoping meeting was that framing the issue of whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development as a question of “What is more important: the environment or economic development?” is completely incorrect. One of the speakers at the rally outside Dena’ina Center organized by Defend the Sacred AK said, “Nothing is sacred when everything is for sale.”

When I heard that, it clicked for me, and I think I understood the disjunction between what Gwich’in advocates were there to say and the EIS process as a whole. The coastal plain of ANWR is sacred to the Gwich’in people. Therefore, no amount of oil reserves, no amount of oil and gas tax revenue, no amount of job creation and infrastructure development can justify opening up even a de minimis portion of “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” to oil and gas exploration and production.

For my law school folks, this sounds like the “market inalienability” concept. Cynical law students, we laughed at Margaret Radin’s outlandish idea that some things have to be “market inalienable” to promote “human flourishing” when we learned about it in Property Law. As Radin defined it, something is “market inalienable” if it cannot be sold or purchased. “Human flourishing” sounds cheesy but it’s just a scholarly term for some essential value to keeping our humanity that cannot be valued by a market. She argued that things that are essential to personhood should be made “market-alienable”; in other words, we can and should protect those things by making laws to prevent their purchase or sale (she’s a legal scholar).

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act does the opposite of this. Literature from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from the public scoping meeting states that the purpose of the EIS is to “properly balance oil and gas development with existing uses and conservation of surfaces resources” which completely misses the point. As more than a few of the persons who gave testimony asserted, oil and gas development in ANWR is a human rights issue, maybe not as “human rights” are usually legally defined in relation to some international treaty, but at the most visceral, basic, plain-language level of concerning personhood.

The Gwich’in people have made it clear that the coastal plain in ANWR is essential to their personhood; it’s sacred and nothing can justify its economic exploitation. I would argue that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is also essential to the personhood of all Americans and it should be sacred to all of us. For better or worse (racist and expansionist and all those things that it was), the concept of “wilderness” is baked into our national identity, and ANWR represents the last of that great wilderness America has left. As Wallace Stegner put it:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

There were a lot of people at the hearing in support of drilling testifying that with modern technology the footprint of the drilling would be small, that American environmental standards are high (a weird reverse NIMBY argument, questionable at best), similar development has been done elsewhere with minimal impact. And those arguments kind of sound reasonable, but if we view the remaining wilderness as sacred, they’re all besides the point. It may sound radical, but at Martin Litton is quoted as saying in The Emerald Mile:

“People often tell me not to be extreme… ‘Be reasonable!’ they say. Buy I’ve never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation, because what you give away will never come back — ever. When it comes to saving wilderness, we cannot be extreme enough.”

ANWR is federal public land. It belongs to all Americans. The Public Scoping Meetings for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program EIS are only focusing on soliciting comments from Alaskan communities, but due to the shady nature of this most recent attempt to open up ANWR to drilling, most Americans have not had to chance to express their concerns. BLM literature states the “scoping period provides an opportunity for people who could be affected by the proposed action to express their views and concerns, and to offer suggestions.” “People who could be affected” is all of us. So here is a call to action. Please submit your comment by June 19, 2018 to blm_ak_costalplain_EIS@blm.gov. Here’s the BLM site for more information.

From the cynical lawyer perspective, this is the least we can do to help protect the Arctic. The BLM is required to review all comments even if they decide to lump them together or determine they are irrelevant, so let’s do a tiny part to stall the process of opening up ANWR to drilling. Hint: Scoping comments are should address what the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement should be — alternatives to explore, impacts to assess — and if we want to stall development we need to argue that that scope of the EIS should be as broad and far-reaching as possible, e.g. the EIS should address the global effects of climate change.

Hearing members of Gwich’in and other indigenous Alaskan tribes speak, it struck me that it is so unethical to impose an inherently unsustainable economic system and way of life on peoples who trying to preserve their right to live a sustainable one. Even if we (Industrial America) purport to be offering them the conveniences of modern, industrialized, commodified and commercialized life, the current global economic system built on extraction of non-renewable natural resources is, by definition, doomed. We should be questioning our economic model of growth for growth’s sake and try learning from them instead.

Resources:

  • Follow Defend the Sacred AK on Facebook
  • I’m a big fan of Carrot Quinn’s beautiful writing and this summer she is hiking and kayaking across Alaska to raise money to support Defend the Sacred AK. Read about it hereSupporting her campaign and following her blog will be a fun way to learn more about ANWR and what’s at stake. 

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