Oil

A quest for Alaska oil sparks a fight over tribal sovereignty

An energy company with a history of environmental violations is conducting exploratory drilling in the Yukon Flats.

 

Every spring, the shallow ponds and spruce forests of the Yukon Flats, in Interior Alaska, stir with the flapping of scoters and scaups, the laugh-like yelps of white-fronted geese and the high-pitched whistle of wigeons. Up to 2 million birds arrive each year to nest in some of North America’s most productive waterfowl breeding grounds. Along with salmon, moose and other wildlife, they provide food for the human residents of the region, where a half-gallon of milk can cost $7.99.

The Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was established to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity including nesting waterfowl, other migratory birds, dall sheep, bears, moose, wolves, wolverines, other furbearers, caribou, and salmon; to fulfill international treaty obligations; to provide for continued subsistence uses; and to ensure necessary water quality and quantity.
Steve Hillebrand / USFWS

“It’s not only our subsistence,” said Rochelle Adams, a member of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government of Fort Yukon, who is from the villages of Fort Yukon and Beaver. “It’s our connection to the lands and waters. It’s a part of our identity, because our people have lived here since our creation.”

This summer, drilling rigs will join the wildlife in the Yukon Flats, as Hilcorp Alaska, a private company with a reputation for regulatory violations, explores for oil and gas. Hilcorp is operating under a 2019 agreement with Doyon Ltd., an Alaska Native regional corporation, which owns 1.6 million acres of mineral rights bordering the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The companies’ plans have raised concerns among local tribes and exposed the complicated dynamics between for-profit Alaska Native corporations and sovereign tribal governments. 

Soon after Doyon announced its deal with Hilcorp, the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government passed a resolution opposing oil and gas development in the Yukon Flats, citing worries about environmental degradation, threats to traditional ways of life and infringements on tribal sovereignty. Last fall, the board of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 tribal governments in Alaska’s Interior, also opposed the project. “What we get to consume here is the most unadulterated food on the planet,” said Dacho Alexander, a Gwichyaa Zhee Tribal Government council member and former chief. “Our water is clean. Our environment is clean. There’s just simply no dollar amount that you could put on those places.” 

Sources: Doyon Ltd.; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

To Alexander, Doyon’s push to explore for fossil fuels illustrates a “major disconnect” between Alaska Native regional corporations and tribal governments. Unlike federally recognized tribes, which are sovereign nations, Alaska Native corporations are for-profit companies owned by Alaska Native shareholders, who receive annual dividends of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. They were created under the 1971 federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to give tribal members economic autonomy, primarily through ownership of natural resources. Today, Doyon is the largest private landowner in Alaska, with more than 20,000 shareholders. 

“It’s our connection to the lands and waters. It’s a part of our identity, because our people have lived here since our creation.”

“A lot of people seem to give Alaska Native corporations a pass because they are titled Alaska Native corporations,” Alexander said. “There is this view that what they are doing is in the best interest of the people.” But even when individual shareholders do not want to develop natural resources, Alexander said, they’re represented by board members whose duty is to the corporation’s bottom line. Doyon did not notify its shareholders, according to Alexander and Adams, both shareholders, and did not consult all tribal governments in the Yukon Flats before announcing its deal with Hilcorp in December 2019. (Doyon refused to comment for this story.)

Now, Doyon and Hilcorp are proceeding to drill 15 stratigraphic boreholes — shallow test wells for soil analysis — near the Gwich’in villages of Birch Creek and Fort Yukon by the end of summer. Doyon has promised that oil and gas development will bring economic opportunity to the region. The company entered into a cooperation agreementwith TihteetAii, the Birch Creek village corporation, but neither entity has released specifics about it or the projected economic benefits. (Tihteet’ Aii did not respond to requests for comment, and the Birch Creek Tribal Government declined to comment.)

Activists with Rainforest Action Network and The Illuminator projected 30ft tall images on the side of a building in the New York financial district with messages opposing Hilcorp's involvement in the sale of land for oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Doyon’s press releases assert that Hilcorp’s drilling this summer will not cause environmental damage. Yet opponents worry that exploration could lead to long-term development, and they have concerns about Hilcorp’s environmental record: The company, which bought all of BPs fossil fuel assets and interests in Alaska in 2020 and is now one of the state’s biggest oil and gas producers, has been responsible for numerous natural gas leaks in Alaskas Cook Inlet. In a 2015 letter to Hilcorp, the chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates fossil fuel production in the state, wrote that regulatory noncompliance is “endemic” to the company’s approach. Since then, Hilcorp has accrued three times more citations than each of Alaska’s biggest oil producers during that time, ConocoPhillips and BP, according to state documents High Country News obtained via a records request.

As Hilcorp begins drilling in the Yukon Flats, Adams, who started a Facebook group to raise awareness of the project, recalled a 2017 leak from a Hilcorp gas pipeline in Cook Inlet that lasted for about four months. “I can’t even imagine what can happen to the Yukon River,” which bisects the Flats, she said. “I don’t want to imagine.”

Max Graham is a journalist based in Homer, Alaska. As a Yale Parker Huang Fellow, he is researching environmental initiatives on both sides of the Bering Strait. Follow him on Twitter @maxmugrah
Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.