Peltola flips script on long-running congressional drama over Arctic drilling

The latest U.S. House hearing on Arctic drilling, on Nov. 29, 2023, featured a panel of Alaska witnesses: Alaska Commissioner of Natural Resources John Boyle, left,; Doreen Leavitt of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope; Karlin Itchoak, The WIlderness Society; Charles Lampe, president of Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Room 1324 of the Longworth House Office building, across the street from the Capitol, has been the venue for many prior congressional clashes over oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic. But on a recent visit, Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola flipped the script in the decades-old debate.

At issue in Wednesday’s hearing was a bill called Alaska’s Right to Produce Act.

In the role of Democrat opposed to Arctic drilling: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“In the Arctic (National Wildlife) Refuge in Northeast Alaska, fossil fuel development is a looming threat to the Gwich’in people,” she said in her opening remarks to a House Resources subcommittee, echoing the words of many Democrats before her. “Their way of life depends on the survival of the caribou herd that reproduces in the region.”

The bill, supported by all three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, aims to undo the Biden administration’s Arctic conservation efforts. It would nullify proposed protection on 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, though it would leave the approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project intact. The bill would also reinstate oil leases in ANWR.

As in hearings of yore, Republicans argued that shutting down domestic oil production would benefit autocratic regimes. Among those making this case, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana.

“You know who’s profiting?” Graves said, nearly yelling. “Iran … Venezuela. Not to mention both countries have higher emissions than those from the exact same volumes or barrels of energy coming out of the United States.”

And, not for the first time, witnesses came from the North Slope to make a very personal case about how oil development improved their lives.

Doreen Leavitt, representing the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, said without local taxes on oil industry infrastructure, essential services in Alaska’s most northern borough would wither.

We fund our own schools, search and rescue, ambulance, hospital, clinics in every single village – we won’t be able to sustain that. – Doreen Leavitt

The late Alaska Congressman Don Young used to relish these hearings. He’d holler at Democrats and tell whoever was testifying on behalf of national environmental groups that they didn’t know a darn thing about Alaska.

But Congresswoman Peltola is in Young’s role now. She’s carried many of Young’s signature issues, including support for Arctic drilling. But her style is vastly different. Even though she’s a sponsor of this pro-development bill, she made no speeches in favor of it and she didn’t yell. She was elected with substantial support from people on both sides of this issue. She took an expressly even-handed, non-confrontational approach to questioning witnesses.

“’I’d love to hear from each of you on how we can do a better job as Alaskans, making sure that industry, Native people and environmental folks can collaborate and work together,” she said when it was her turn to ask questions. “And that’s the only way we’re going to get anywhere.”

Time ran out before each witness could answer. But the witness for the environmental groups did have a chance to weigh in, and he brought a new perspective to the hearing, too.  Karlin Itchoak, state director for The Wilderness Society, made it clear he’s not new to the Arctic.

“My grandfather and grandmother, Wilber and Cora Itchuagaq, are from the Colville River,” he testified. “My father, Tommy Itchuagaq, was from Utqiagvik. I was born and raised in Nome. I’ve been going back to the Arctic every year for many years.”

Itchoak reckons he may be the only member of the conservation community who has harpooned a whale. He said the ecology of the region needs to be safeguarded for future generations.

There’s never going to be another place like the Arctic. And the way we’re moving forward with the exacerbation of the climate crisis, we’re not going to have the Arctic for much longer. – Karlin Itchoak, state director for The Wilderness Society

The bill has a good chance of passing the Republican-led House. Democratic leadership in the Senate is highly unlikely to bring it up for a vote.

Related stories from around the North :

Canada: Bill requiring First Nations’ oil and gas development consent spiked in Yukon, CBC News

Norway : No foreign companions as Gazprom prepares well drilling in Arctic waters, The Independent Barents Observer

United States : Q&A on Biden’s approval of Arctic drilling of Willow, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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