Haaland finally meets with Native Alaskans who say Biden’s oil and gas policies harm their economy

"If you strangle our economic opportunity, and then our tax base, then you are essentially strangling a community's survival,” said Kate Wolgemuth, program and government affairs manager for the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat.

Published: June 14, 2024 11:00pm

On the opening day of the two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit in 2022, President Joe Biden promised to bolster tribal consultations to give Native Americans a stronger voice in federal affairs. It was a promise he’s made many times. That promise, however, appears to have been limited to listening to consultations about helping him advance his climate agenda. 

“There are tribal communities at risk of being washed away. It’s devastating,” Biden said at the summit, according to the Associated Press

The indigenous people of Alaska’s North Slope, whose economies depend on oil and gas development, say their input has been excluded from the conversation. For years, the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat has been requesting a meeting with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of Biden’s policies on their communities. 

After years of declining or ignoring the requests, Haaland finally sat down with representatives from the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat on Thursday. They asked for eight commitments from Haaland, many of them asking for improved engagement from the Interior Department. 

“We have struggled to not just get an audience with her, but to be heard by her department, when it comes to large decisions about our homelands,” Kate Wolgemuth, program and government affairs manager for the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told Just the News

In a release by the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, leaders of the communities expressed similar frustration with trying to get an audience with the secretary. 

“It is inconceivable that Secretary Haaland would wait so long to meet directly with indigenous leaders whom she claims to support. By waiting until the eleventh hour to speak with our leadership, she has revealed how little this administration cares for the opinions of indigenous communities in the policymaking process,” Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope Director of Natural Resources and Tribal Secretary Doreen Leavitt said in the statement. 

Blaming logistics

These homelands are a region of approximately 50 million acres — about the size of Minnesota, and the eight communities that the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat represents are not connected by any roads. The oil and gas industry provides a tax base, which has helped the communities develop modern infrastructure, and it provides economic opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. 

In September, the Biden administration announced it would prohibit drilling in 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) and cancel all drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Despite a unanimous consensus of opposition from the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat communities to the rules, the Interior Department finalized the rules in April. 

“These natural wonders demand our protection. I am proud that my administration is taking action," President Joe Biden said in an announcement

Elected Iñupiat leaders have visited Washington, D.C., on multiple occasions to discuss with federal officials how these actions will impact the North Slope Iñupiat’s economy, communities, and culture. In November, E&E News reported they held a press conference alongside Alaska’s senators railing about Haaland ignoring or denying their request for a meeting. 

On Wednesday, June 5, Wolgemuth said, the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat was notified that Haaland might meet with them the following week. They were told it might be earlier in the week, and they didn’t get confirmation that the meeting would happen on Thursday until Thursday. 

This presented traveling challenges for remote communities with no road access, Wolgemuth said. Fortunately the meeting wasn’t earlier in the week, because a representative from the community of Kaktovik, Wolgemuth said, who attended the meeting wouldn’t have been able to be there as the community has no flight service on the weekends. 

“The travel logistics to get over a dozen people from the North Slope down to Washington D.C. is not an easy feat. And it was on such short notice,” Wolgemuth said. 

The original announcement on the proposed rules to shut down large portions of Northern Alaska to oil and gas development was made on Sept. 6. Kaktovik is the only community in the ANWR, and it had just landed its first whale of the whaling season on that day. Whaling season just ended, and the community is now into their cultural whaling celebrations. 

“So certain members of our communities were unable to participate [in the meeting with Haaland] because they couldn't meet their obligations for the celebrations that started this week,” if they went to D.C., Wolgemuth said. 

The remoteness and unique characteristics of these communities, Wolgemuth said, is something she’d like more people to understand. She said that each of these eight communities of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat are essentially eight islands across a vast area with no roads to connect them. They have their own cultures, and their lines were drawn on different histories, families and kinships. 

“What you have is a place based on culture. And so, if you take away the opportunity for people to not only have personal economic means to be there — like a job and everything — if you take away the tax base that supports all the services for those eight communities … then we’re dependent on the state and federal government. If you strangle our economic opportunity, and then our tax base, then you are essentially strangling a community's survival,” Wolgemuth said. 

In the last 40 years, she said, these communities have gone from having the standards of living of a third-world country to enjoying the modern amenities that much of the developed nation takes for granted. 

Respectful engagement

At the meeting with Haaland, Wolgemuth said, one thing the representatives of the Iñupiat heard was that Haaland is really proud of her record for engagement with indigenous people, and that under her leadership the Interior Department has seen a sea of change in the way it prioritizes their concerns. 

“Our experience has essentially been the opposite,” Wolgemuth said. 

Wolgemuth said there was a respectful dialogue between the Iñupiat representatives and Haaland, and she honored their request that she answer their questions directly. Haaland had staff members present who could have given more color to the answers, Wolgemuth said, but they wanted to have a direct conversation with the Secretary. 

“We really appreciate her respectful engagement with us,” Wolgemuth said. 

The commitments they asked of the Department of Interior included:

  • Formal notices of consultation through multiple means;
  • That North Slope leadership be part of the rulemaking process;
  • To have in-person and follow-up meetings with Haaland;
  • That the Department of the Interior will reconsider its economic analysis of the NRP-A rule to consider ramifications to the North Slope communities;
  • That the Kaktovikmiut will be granted year-round access rights on their ancestral homelands;
  • That subsistence rights will be given priority over conservation; and
  • That Haaland will eliminate “dangerous and offensive tropes about the North Slope Iñupiat by members of Congress.” 

“We got an audience, and I definitely think that's a step forward with the Secretary. Whether that relates to action is yet to be seen,” Wolgemuth said. 

Haaland did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Rick Whitbeck, Alaska state director for Power The Future, which advocates for energy workers, told Just the News that the Biden administration has been shunning the concerns of all Alaskans throughout Biden’s term. The oil and gas industry, he said, is important to tens of thousands of energy workers in the state, as well as energy consumers across the country, but the critical role Alaskans play in energy and national security has been dismissed. 

“While it was great to see Secretary Haaland finally meet with Iñupiat leaders from the North Slope – especially after shunning them eight times previously – it still doesn’t make up for the attitude this administration has had for the last 42 months when it comes to Alaska,” Whitbeck said. 

It’s not just oil and gas, he said. The Biden administration has been similarly hostile to all resource development across the Last Frontier, such as the Ambler Road project, which would have opened up mining operations to bolster critical mineral supplies for green energy. 

“Alaskans and Americans in general are tired of Team Biden’s ‘America-last’ agenda — the increased costs for nearly every good and service and the indignant way they treat everyday citizens. It’s time for ‘We the People’ to remind them of that. November can’t come soon enough,” Whitbeck said.

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