In the four years or so that a proposed land exchange between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Doyon Ltd. in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge has lain on the table, the subject of a heated debate between those in favor of oil and gas development in Alaska’s interior and those who see development as a threat to the environment and to the subsistence lifestyle of the region’s communities, views of the oil and gas potential of the land in question have changed, and difficulties in refuge land valuations have emerged.
But on July 2 Fish and Wildlife ended the uncertainty over the land swap by intimating the agency’s decision to identify “no action” as its preferred alternative in the final environmental impact statement for the proposed deal, thus indicating that its final decision will be to turn the deal down.
Native and refuge landThe Yukon Flats consists of an approximately 15,000-square-mile lowland area around the Yukon River between the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the Canadian border. The 8.6 million-acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, administered by Fish and Wildlife, lies within the lowlands. Doyon and some Native village corporations own a patchwork of surface and subsurface land amounting to about 2 million acres inside the refuge perimeter boundary — the Native corporations selected this land under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act before the wildlife refuge came into existence.
The land swap would have enabled Doyon, the Native regional corporation for the Alaska Interior, to obtain about 110,000 acres of refuge lands, and oil and gas rights to an additional 97,000 acres, in the deepest part of the Yukon Flats basin, a basin under the Yukon Flats area that the U.S. Geological Survey has assessed as prospective for oil and gas. Doyon would have re-allocated 56,500 acres of Doyon refuge land entitlement to locations outside the refuge.
Also Doyon would have paid Fish and Wildlife a portion of any oil and gas revenues from land obtained in the swap. Fish and Wildlife would subsequently have had the right to use that money to purchase up to an additional 120,000 acres of Doyon land.
Doyon hopes to see oil and gas development in the Yukon Flats basin to generate income for its shareholders and to create economic opportunities for Yukon Flats communities.
But in response to requests from people concerned about the land exchange, Fish and Wildlife elected to conduct an environmental impact statement for the exchange, even though an EIS was not a legal requirement; Doyon supported the EIS development, given the complexity of the deal and the concerns that the proposed deal had raised.
OppositionWith the final EIS now nearing completion, Fish and Wildlife says that it received more than 100,000 comments, the vast majority of which opposed the swap, the agency said July 2.
“We were very pleased by the level of public participation,” said Robb Jess, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge manager. “The EIS process worked, though it may have led us in a different direction than we had originally anticipated. Going into this effort, we did not anticipate the level of opposition that we had heard from some of the most affected communities.”
Jess told Petroleum News July 7 that Fish and Wildlife had conducted 13 government-to-government consultations with tribal governments in the Yukon Flats region, as well as obtaining views through public and written testimony. And with those opposing the land swap in the Yukon Flats appearing to outnumber those in favor by a ratio of perhaps four to one, local support for the swap failed to solidify, Jess said.
“The Gwich’in people of the Yukon Flats have been dependent on the resources provided by this land for thousands of years,” said Dacho Alexander, the then first chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in tribe in Fort Yukon, in a press release published by the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in tribal government and several environmental groups in January 2008, when the draft EIS was published for public review. “We are acutely aware that even a minor spill could have devastating effects on the fragile ecosystem, not only here in the Yukon Flats, but along the entire Yukon watershed.”
Fish and Wildlife has based its land swap decision both on a lack of local support and on other concerns, Jess said. People voiced concerns about environmental conservation; potential impacts on refuge resources, including subsistence resources; the divestiture of Native lands; and the potential impacts of climate change on refuge land, according to a Fish and Wildlife statement.
“Some felt that, geographically, the effect of the exchange would result in habitat fragmentation, as the refuge would be split into two parcels, and could degrade the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the refuge,” Fish and Wildlife said.
“The science clearly indicates that this was not a very good move for the American people,” Jess said.
New geologyIn addition, geologic studies done since the original plan for the land swap was developed have raised questions regarding the selection of land for the swap, with some existing Doyon land appearing more prospective than originally thought, thus encouraging Doyon to promote development within its existing Yukon Flats lands and to reconsider its interest in going through with the land exchange.
For example, a USGS evaluation of gravity data for the Yukon Flats basin has pointed to the existence of a series of sub-basins within the area of the main basin, with most of these subbasins having depths in excess of 8,000 feet. A subsequent oil and gas assessment by Petrotechnical Resources of Alaska estimated the possible existence of 300 million to 1 billion barrels of oil in the basin, and perhaps 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
“We clearly think that this area is permissive of at least a couple, maybe more, Alpine-sized fields,” James Mery, Doyon vice president lands and natural resources, told Petroleum News in 2008.
Support for developmentAnd Mery remains convinced that there is significant local support in the Yukon Flats communities for economic development.
“We appreciate that FWS has decided to complete the NEPA process in an orderly manner, and issue a final environmental impact statement, regardless of their decision. The agency has done a lot of good work updating and analyzing information about the Yukon Flats and the people who live there,” Mery said in response to the final EIS decision. “We are disappointed that they made no mention in their press release of strong local, tribal support in communities closest to where exploration would likely occur. A substantial amount of the opposition was organized by national environmental groups via their vast e-mail networks. However, federal public lands were involved and we always expected people from outside of Alaska to weigh in, as is their right.”
And Angela Ludwick, chief operating officer both of Ihteet Aii Inc., the village corporation for Birch Creek, and of Birch Creek tribal council, told Petroleum News July 7 that her community supports local oil and gas development — Birch Creek is the village closest to the most prospective part of the Yukon Flats basin.
Ludwick said that, although at first disappointed by the Fish and Wildlife decision, her community had come to realize that the most recent geologic assessment of the basin had indicated that village-owned land lies on the best part of the basin, thus opening the possibility of oil and gas development taking place without the land swap happening.
“It kind of worked out to our advantage,” Ludwick said of the land exchange decision.
Ludwick also said that the people she knows in the local community would welcome the jobs and economic opportunities that oil and gas development could bring, and that “a silent majority” in the Yukon Flats supports development.
“Doyon intends to now focus on development of our own lands in the Yukon Flats, in close coordination with communities there that have expressed strong interest in working with us,” Mery said.
Fish and Wildlife says that it will publish the final EIS for the land exchange in late 2009, with publication to be followed by a record of decision in early 2010.