Trump Administration Opens Up Alaska for Drilling, Threatening At-Risk Wildlife

We begin today’s show with the historic announcement by the Trump administration to approve a plan to drill for oil off the Alaska coast. On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior approved Hilcorp Energy’s proposal to drill in the Beaufort Sea, six miles off the Alaskan coast. It would be the first oil and gas production facility in federal waters in Alaska. Hilcorp plans to build a nine-acre artificial island about 20 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, not far from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Dubbed the Liberty Project, the operation plans to extract about 70,000 barrels of oil per day on the state’s North Slope. This latest move continues the Trump administration’s targeting of the Alaskan Arctic. We’re joined by Subhankar Banerjee, activist, photographer and professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. His work is included in the exhibition “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment” at the Princeton University Art Museum.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the historic announcement by the Trump administration this week to approve a plan to drill for oil off the Alaskan coast. On Wednesday, Department of the Interior approved Hilcorp Energy’s proposal to drill in the Beaufort Sea, six miles off the Alaskan coast. It would be the first oil and gas production facility in federal waters in Alaska. Hilcorp plans to build a nine-acre artificial island about 20 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, not far from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Dubbed the Liberty Project, the operation plans to extract about 70,000 barrels of oil per day on the state’s North Slope.

This latest move continues the Trump administration’s targeting of the Alaskan Arctic. Last year, legislation to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was quietly added to the Republican tax code overhaul. In January, the White House proposed a massive offshore oil and gas drilling plan to allow it in nearly all federal waters, including sales off the Alaska coast.

The Arctic Refuge is rich in biodiversity and home to caribou, polar bears and musk oxen. Millions of migratory birds gather there from across the world. Whales reside just offshore. It’s also been home to generations of indigenous people for thousands of years.

We’re joined now by professor Subhankar Banerjee, activist, photographer, professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. His work is included in the exhibition “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment” at Princeton University Art Museum.

Professor Banerjee, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this week’s Trump announcement.

SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Thank you, Amy, for having me, and I bring you warm greetings from all my indigenous and non-indigenous brothers and sisters who are working very hard right now to defend the Arctic. So, this is what we would call ushering in a new era to open up the Arctic seas of Alaska to oil and gas development. So this is one first small step, but a significant one. You started with saying Hurricane Michael and the impact that it had on Florida, and all of the hurricanes we had last year. The extreme warming in the Arctic is directly related to the climate breakdown that is happening all over the planet right now, because the Arctic is a critical integrator of our planet’s climate system, atmospheric and oceanic, and it is warming extremely rapidly.

So, what does this decision then mean is instead of helping to mitigate the climate crisis, they are turning the Arctic Ocean and all of Arctic Alaska into a petroscape — oil, gas, coal and all of this. But I want to take you back a little bit historically. So, what this decision does, this is a conditional approval, meaning it is not entirely — they can’t move forward. They still need a whole bunch of other permits before they can move forward to start the Liberty Project.

The whole sort of exploration of the Arctic seas of Alaska started in the 1970s, and there have been two kind of waves. And it went on ’til about early 1990s, when no major discovery was made, so President George H.W. Bush canceled the entire exploration program for the Arctic seas of Alaska. The junior Bush, the son, revived that. And ever since then — so, anything that is taking place in Arctic seas of Alaska right now, we should look at it not just what President Trump is doing, but as a continuation from Bush to Obama to Trump. President Obama supported offshore drilling for basically most of his presidency, except the last days of his administration.

So, if this one moves forward, what does this mean? So they’ll build — it’s not technically a full offshore platform, like a floating platform, but it is an island they will build, and then there’s a pipeline that will connect the mainland to this island. Whereas a full offshore — the Chukchi Sea that they’re planning would be like 60, 70 miles offshore, which is a whole different thing. But all of this threatens the indigenous food security, the incredible diversity that you spoke of, of the marine life in those Arctic seas, and it is very close to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which we are now trying to defend.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilcorp Energy plans to build this nine-acre gravel island not far from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the world’s last pristine wildernesses. This is Gwich’in Tribal Government member Samuel Alexander testifying during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing.

SAMUEL ALEXANDER: When we talk about the refuge and we talk about the land, it is tied to our language and our understanding of the world. And, you know, the vadzaih, the caribou, we are connected to them, and we recognize that. You know, we talk about — I hear this talk about development all the time: “We need to develop this. We need to develop that.” What I think we need is a little bit of understanding of the sustainability of the life that we live as Gwich’in. All right? We’re not asking — we’re not sitting here asking for anything. We’re not saying, “We need hospitals. We need schools. We need all these things.” We’re not saying, “Give us money.” What we’re saying is “Let us live as Gwich’in.”

AMY GOODMAN: That is Gwich’in Tribal Government member Samuel Alexander. Talk about how this fits into Trump’s plan for energy development.

SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: So, Trump has initiated what he calls the energy dominance. And Secretary Zinke last year said that energy dominance — the path to that energy dominance will come through the state of Alaska. So they have initiated a full-on war on Alaska’s Arctic, on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the Arctic Ocean, as well as in Teshekpuk Lake, all of which are threatened right now.

Sam Alexander spoke about — Gwich’in leader, spoke about actually indigenous food security, and he gave a very beautiful speech last year. And right now the Gwich’in nation, on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, along with the environmental allies, are really trying very hard.

Any day now, the Trump administration will release, regarding the Arctic Refuge, what is called the exploration environmental assessment, any day now. So they plan to do seismic exploration, threatening the remaining polar bears, the endangered polar bears, in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain this winter. They’ll release that any day now.

Right after that, in mid-November, we are expecting a draft environmental impact statement on the lease sale that they propose to offer next summer. A process that should have taken three to five years, they are packing it in one year. So they are fast-tracking it. They are undermining environmental regulations. And we are fighting it hard. So there is a very large coalition of indigenous human rights and environmental groups, both in U.S. and Canada, are fighting all of this now.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, Hilcorp’s record, track record?

SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: And Hilcorp, the company that is proposing to build this Liberty Project, has a horrendous track record of pipeline spills in the southeast of Alaska, in the Cook Inlet, as well as in Gulf of Mexico. And right now — this was not reported in The Washington Post — they are asking for a waiver of the corrosion protection on that pipeline. So that’s why I’m saying that it’s not a done deal yet. There are various permits that Hilcorp still has to get. The company has a horrendous record. And as we all know that they have turned the Gulf of Mexico into basically a garbage dump and a sacrifice zone, that’s what they’re actually basically ushering in for the Arctic Ocean. And we will fight it very hard.

AMY GOODMAN: Subhankar Banerjee is professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. He is author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.

When we come back, the effects of Hurricane Michael on the Air Force base in the Florida Panhandle that housed about 50 F-22 fighter jets. We’ll talk about what’s happened to them. Stay with us.