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UN discrimination committee questions impact of US Arctic drilling on Indigenous people

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The United Nations’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is asking for information about whether a U.S. plan to advance drilling in Alaska is fair to a native group. 

CERD Chair Yanduan Li wrote in a letter to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Bremberg that it received allegations that the oil and gas drilling plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was done “without the free, prior and informed consent of and adequate consultation with Gwich’in indigenous peoples, despite the serious harm such extractive activities could allegedly cause.”

Li also said the committee received allegations that drilling would harm Gwich’in people by reducing a significant traditional food source, subject them to air pollution and exacerbate the impacts of climate change that they will face. 

The letter, which is dated Aug. 7 but posted online more recently, asks the U.S. for details on measures taken to give the Gwich’in people informed consent about the plan, protect sacred sites and mitigate the impact of climate change from the development. 

Last month, just days after the U.N. letter was issued, the Interior Department finalized its plan to open up a 1.56-million-acre area of ANWR, all of its Coastal Plain, for selling leases for oil and gas drilling. 

An Interior spokesperson said the U.N. letter was “misinformed” in a statement to The Hill since it didn’t mention the native communities that live within ANWR’s Coastal Plain. 

“The Inupiat people of the Arctic and residents of the village of Kaktovik, the only village inside the refuge boundaries, support responsible development of the Coastal Plain,” said spokesperson Conner Swanson in an email. “Development of these important energy resources will provide the Inupiat communities who live there with jobs and keep the lights on for future generations, providing opportunity and basic infrastructure such as schools, roads, stores, community centers, running water and basic sanitation systems.

“The input of native communities was received and valuable to the extensive development of this plan,” he added. “There were more than 25 Government-to-Government and Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Corporation consultations conducted during this process, including meetings with the Gwich’in community and their leaders.”

After years of debate over the matter, a provision in the 2017 Trump tax bill approved by a GOP-controlled Congress opened ANWR to drilling. The House, now led by Democrats, has since voted to block ANWR drilling again, but the GOP-controlled Senate has not taken up the bill. 

One reason that the drilling is controversial is because of the potential impacts on the Gwich’in, who hunt caribou in the area and to whom ANWR land is sacred.

Swanson also told The Hill that there will be “timing limitations” that suspend major construction activities for a month during the porcupine caribou herd’s calving period in the area where the animals give birth. 

Critics have also raised concerns about the possible impacts on animal species and the landscape itself. 

Two lawsuits, including one on behalf of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, claimed that the government didn’t adequately comply with environmental laws requiring thorough impact assessments as part of its plan.

Documents obtained recently by the Center for Biological Diversity also show that the project’s environmental review was among dozens that were fast-tracked as part of an effort by the Trump administration to boost industry.

Tags Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Arctic Refuge drilling controversy Environmental impact of the petroleum industry Gwich'in Iñupiat Porcupine caribou

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