With her family and supporters sitting behind her, Tara Sweeney went before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9, 2018, for her confirmation to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. She was confirmed by the Senate on June 28, 2018. Photo: SCIA

Trump administration moves quickly on drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Department of the Interior is moving quickly with plans to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to energy development.

A $1.7 million contract obtained by the Center for American Progress and published in The Washington Post outlines the environmental review schedule for oil and gas drilling in ANWR. It anticipates tribal consultation, public meetings, subsistence hearings and other activities that will culminate with the notice of a lease sale about a year from now, the paper reported.

The schedule outlined in the document is much shorter than expected, a former Interior official told the paper. The process typically takes two years, instead of about one.

“The idea of imposing an arbitrary deadline like this is just horrific to me,” Geoffrey Haskett, a former regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told The Post. “I think they’re going to make mistakes because they’re moving so fast. They’re certainly not going to get much input on this.”

A map of Alaska North's Slope shows the "1002 Area" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where energy development could occur. Native owned lands are shaded orange. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

Congress authorized drilling in the so-called 1002 Area of ANWR through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. A major Alaska Native corporation with ties to the Trump administration stand to benefit from that action.

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation owns subsurface rights to about 92,000 acres in the 1002 Area. Tara Sweeney, the incoming leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is a former executive for the corporation who lobbied Congress repeatedly to open up those lands to drilling.

"When I start to name names, I think of Tara Sweeney and the folks who have been there year in and year out, those who have been supportive by traveling here and those who call and those who write," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has been one of Sweeney's biggest champions, said as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was about to clear Congress last December.

Sweeney has vowed to recuse herself from matters affecting ASRC while serving as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a political position at Interior. She also will forgo certain "incentive" payments during her time in the Trump administration.

She does not plan on selling her stock in ASRC, however, which Murkowski and allies have characterized as akin to asking a tribal citizen to renounce citizenship in a tribal government. Alaska Native corporations, while they were created by Congress, are not tribal governments.

According to a disclosure on file with the Office of Government Ethics, Sweeney earned $1 million as an executive vice president for ASRC in 2017. She has received upwards of $1 million in additional "incentive" payments, the document showed.

Sweeney was confirmed to her post on June 28, almost a month ago, but she has yet to start work at Interior. Some employees believed she was going to show up this week but another expects her to arrive next week.

Prior Assistant Secretary nominees are usually sworn in quickly after securing confirmation so the situation with Sweeney is unusual, especially since her boss has blamed Democrats for allegedly delaying her nomination. Neal McCaleb, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who served during the beginning years of the George W. Bush administration, went to work on the July 4 holiday in 2001, just five days after being approved in the Senate.

But as the first Alaska Native and Alaska resident to serve in the post, Sweeney is making a much farther journey than most. She has said she plans to spend her first six months on a listening tour of Indian Country.

Read More on the Story:
Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to get fast review (The Washington Post July 19, 2018)
Interior Department offers fix-up funds for ANWR drilling zone (The Anchorage Daily News June 7, 2018)

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