Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is being earmarked by the Trump administration for oil drilling.
Last Thursday, the Trump administration announced its final plan to open the Refuge up for the petroleum industry to drill down into. Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the country, the largest and wildest land publicly owned by the United States, and is still virtually pristine — until the drills hit, at any rate.
Refuge no longer
“Unfortunately, this sham environmental impact statement ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence that demonstrates the unprecedented risks to wildlife that would result from drilling in the Coastal Plain,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the conservation group National Wildlife Federation.
“Alaskans, tribes and conservationists all agree that this is the wrong approach.”
The plan is to allow oil companies to lease 1.56 million acres of the total 19 million acres of the refuge — basically, to allow them to drill along the entire coastal plain of the refuge. This proposal was generally seen as being the most extreme of three options considered by the Interior Department.
Supporters of the plan argue that it will bring huge economic benefits to the Alaskan economy and that it will help line the federal Treasury’s coffers. Opponents say that opening the area to oil exploitation is likely to cause irreversible damage to the region, especially since it’s already buckling under rising mean temperatures and other effects of man-made climate change.
The refuge harbors large populations of polar bears, caribou, wolves, and migratory birds. Environmentalists and conservancy groups are likely to take legal action to challenge the plan in an effort to safeguard the refuge and these species.
While Republicans have had an eye on opening up oil leases in the refuge for quite some time now, on the grounds that it would promote economic growth and underpin U.S. energy independence, they haven’t been able to get Congress to approve. Under a 1980 law, Congress left the possibility that 1.5 million acres of the refuge along the Arctic Ocean coast could be opened to oil and gas development, but efforts from environmentalists, along with Democrats and some Republican party members have successfully blocked efforts to allow oil companies into the area.
However, the Trump administration seems to have tilted the odds in the supporters’ favor. In 2017 Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski added a provision to the GOP tax cut bill that required the Interior Department to allow oil and gas leasing on 1.5 million acres within the refuge’s coastal plain. It also mandated that the agency hold at least two lease sales by 2025. On Thursday, Murkowski called the Interior Department’s final plan a “major step forward,” saying she was “hopeful we can now move to a lease sale in the very near future, just as Congress intended.”
Original predictions held that oil lease sales within the refuge would rake in $1.8 billion for the federal government by 2027. Things have changed since then, however, and an updated projection by the Congressional Budget Office in June estimated that sales would amount to around $900 million.
House Democrats have been working to repeal the mandate and passed a bill (The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act) on Thursday to remove the language that would require lease sales in the area; whether the Senate will follow suit or not is still to be seen.
“The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act reflects a very simple proposition: There are some places too wild, too important, too unique to be spoiled by oil and gas development,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Jared Huffman.
“The Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain is one of those special places.”
I personally don’t subscribe to the idea that the U.S. needs to open up new oil fields to ensure its energy independence — there are a lot of options a country so large and resourceful can look to for that which don’t involve ruining one of its most beautiful and untamed regions.
Murkowski and other members of the Alaska congressional delegation criticized the House bill in The Wall Street Journal saying that Alaska “cannot be treated like a snow globe, to be placed on the shelf for viewing pleasure only,” to which I counter: why not?