UPDATE: BLM holds meetings for Alaskans to weigh in on ANWR oil and gas leasing

Anchorage (KTUU) — UPDATE: The Bureau of Land Management is hosting public hearings across the state giving Alaskans the chance to weigh in on proposals to lease land in ANWR for oil and gas development — a deeply divisive issue for industry and conservation groups alike.

Wednesday, this divisive issue came to Anchorage.

Gwich'in Tribe members and Defend the Sacred Alaska rallied outside of the Dena'ina Center, protesting potential impacts of oil development on the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

"Why is it important to protect the Arctic Refuge?” a Gwich’in Tribe member speaking at the public meeting asked. “Because that's a sacred land where the caribou migrate, where the caribou have their calves."

This issue is paramount to the Gwich'in Tribe, a fact made apparent by the appearance of a Vuntut Gwich'in councilman from the Northwest Territory. Dana Tizya-tramm said some oil and gas development projects may go through the herd's primary breeding habitat, and the Gwich'in people's way of living depends on healthy caribou.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge represents the largest onshore oil and gas prospect on federal land in the United States, and it could pump an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil from out of the ground and into state and international markets, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Opponents argue that the 1002 area of ANWR — a 1.5 million acre plot along the coastal plain — should never be opened, citing a "moral and climate imperative."

Pro-development advocates say they can work responsibly to minimize environmental impacts... and that the potential economic benefits are just too high to ignore.

“It has huge potential, it's the largest on shore opportunity on federal land,” Alaska Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Kara Moriarty said. “But ,tonight also offers us the opportunity to reinforce that we do care about the environment. We do coexist. And the reality is the demand for oil and gas is not going away."

The BLM echoed that sentiment, as shown in a statement from Assistant Secretary of the Interior Joe Balash.

"There is nobody who is seeking to cause great harm here," Balash said.

But not all Alaskan Natives are confident in the promise of minimal environmental harm. Protesters outside the Dena'ina Center shouted in unison, "Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Corporate Greed has got to go!"

There is a request to extend the public comment period deadline, and the BLM will have a response by Friday.

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