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Oil rush in Alaska: Remind us, “Why do we need more oil?”

Many readers come across headlines that talk about US native Americans yet again suing the US government, and sigh and expect very little. But fundamental to the efforts of climate change campaigners everywhere have been these tiny pockets of resistance that are associated with documents whereby the US formed its nation.

Treaties signed with Native Indians are afforded in courts almost the same significance as the constitution. So when Alaskan natives said this week they had sued the Trump administration because they are concealing documents on the effects of oil development in the long protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the move is important. This is not a forlorn single lawyer practice taking on the deeply embedded US national interest, it is raising the specter of yet another defeat for the Trump administration on the subject of pollution, doing the bidding of fossil fuel companies.

The lawsuit was filed in the District Court at Anchorage, and claims the US Department of the Interior broke federal laws when it failed to show what should have been careful calculations on oil leasing inside the refuge. Constant attempts to gain access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act have met with stony silence. The problem is there probably are no documents, just a hurried email from the President saying “let the oil companies get at this land.”

Of course the Department of the Interior was acting at the behest of the US president, who tacked a provision to dig for oil across the huge Alaskan coastal plane into the tax reforms he pushed through last year. Exploration has been banned on the refuge forever. The tribes concerned simply want to see the detailed assessments of the effects on their way of life, because the process was so full of secrecy. The oil industry has wanted to get its hands on this region ever since oil became important.

Now the native groups want information on what effect drilling will have on the Porcupine caribou herds, which roams between Alaska and Canada and need access to the seismic surveys planned by the Bureau of Land Management. They want information about any development work that took place during the federal government shutdown earlier in the year, when there seemed to be some activity in the region.

The Trump administration would rather nothing was heard from the natives and plan to offer leases for sale later this year and to begin drilling for oil as soon as possible.

The legal action has been brought by a committee of the Gwich’in Athabascans, a First Nations people who live largely above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada. The case is Gwich’in Steering Committee et al v. U.S. Dept of the Interior et al, US District Court for Alaska, No. 19-208.

The Steering Committee has been to see New York Bankers a few weeks back to try to get them onside. This seems to be an open and shut case – anyone drilling for oil here has to spend around two years building a dossier on the effects on the wildlife, and the Department of the Interior has bypassed that stage.

Given that any court in the land is going to make them go back and justify their actions, and demonstrate that they are caring for the wildlife at the very least, this is going to tie up this lease auction beyond the life of this administration, whereupon it will go away if Mr Trump does not get re-elected.

The committee has asked JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, to use their power to uninvest in any organization that wants to support drilling in the coastal plain. Already many of the banks have written letters urging their clients to steer away from supporting any oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge.

The Gwich’in Nation has lived in harmony with the caribou herds here for thousands of years. Oil companies almost always poison the local water and disturb habitats and in this instance want to drill on the calving grounds of the young caribou, so could potentially wipe out the herds and the Gwich’in Nation in one go.

Not a single barrel of this oil will ever be needed, since to burn all the oil reserves the top 10 oil companies already have, would push the planet to about 6 degrees of warming. But still they greedily chase further reserves simply because their stock market valuation is based on their reserve strength, and yet it shouldn’t be. If banks realized that actually the days of petroleum are numbered, they would want to see that exploration money spent on getting into renewables.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world,  and these people have villages in the front line, which are sinking into the ocean. Our money is on this Refuge remaining intact with the help of the US court system for some years yet.

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