The Fight Over Drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
On August 17th, President Trump announced a plan to allow oil drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The prospect of oil drilling in the refuge has been highly contested since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which expanded the refuge to its current size but also left 1.5 million acres up for potential oil and gas extraction. Former President Bill Clinton blocked Republican drilling efforts in 1995.
This decision comes as a direct result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a 2017 law passed by then Republican-led Congress which states that the "Interior must conduct at least two lease sales within 10 years” and "Each lease sale must contain: (1) at least 400,000 acres, and (2) areas that have the highest potential for the discovery of hydrocarbons." This would grant oil and gas companies access to roughly 8% of the refuge’s total 19.3 million acreage.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest wildlife refuge in the U.S and is home to more than 200 species including polar bears, caribou, and geese. This plan would leave the habitats of these species open for drilling, threatening not only their livelihood but also that of the Gwich’in people, who rely heavily on caribou for food and clothing. The plan has made an effort to address this by including protections for wildlife, such as restrictions on where workers can go and when they can drill, but environmentalists are far from convinced: “Developing Alaska’s last wild places would be a death sentence for polar bears and other threatened Arctic species,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney working on one of the many lawsuits against the Trump Administration over the refuge.
The United States Geological Survey estimates that there could be as many as 7.7 billion barrels’ worth of oil on the coastal plain, but resource surveillance has not been conducted since the ‘80s. The Trump Administration also projected that drilling in the Arctic would generate $1.8 billion over the course of the decade, but that estimate has since been halved.
Some major banks, including JPMorgan, Chase, and Goldman Sachs, have already announced that they will not finance projects in the refuge, and other financial institutions are under pressure to follow suit. Lack of financial backing may prove to be a significant problem even if the plan is allowed to go through.
President Trump has always been a vocal proponent of fossil fuels. In 2017, Trump signed an executive order that loosened restrictions on fossil fuel companies. He has spent much of his presidency imposing drastic cuts on the EPA, relaxing regulations on power plants along with greenhouse gas emissions, and, perhaps most notably, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. President Trump is also notorious for praising what he calls “really clean coal,” an industry which donates generously to Trump.
Politically speaking, this could actually cause President Trump to lose voters, although it could also strengthen the support of others. According to a study conducted by Yale in 2017, 49% of Trump voters in 2016 believed in climate change. To that end, 62% of Trump voters support both taxing and regulating the fossil fuel industry, while 77% said that they would like to see more money being invested into clean energy research. However, 72% of Trump voters said they support further drilling and mining of fossil fuels on US soil; President Trump’s decision will definitely not lose these votes.
Former Vice-President Biden has committed to preventing drilling from taking place and permanently protecting the refuge should he be elected come November.
In 2019, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, was quoted as saying the following: “Climate change is putting the entire region at risk,” he continued. “We don’t need to make it worse by disrupting and drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, especially to produce more oil that will only worsen the climate crisis.”
In stark contrast, this decision has been garnering support from Alaska Republicans such as Governor Mike Dunleavy, who called it a “definitive step in the right direction” in unlocking this land’s energy potential. He also said that the drilling “will lead to the responsible development of Alaska’s abundant resources, create new jobs, support economic growth and prosperity.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has echoed these sentiments, citing the need for “a lasting economic foundation for our state.”
This is not the first time that drilling was proposed on the refuge. As recently as 2012, Shell had plans to begin drilling in the Arctic and was prepared to spend $6 billion to make it happen. Similar to today, this sparked a huge public outcry from locals in the area and conservationists around the world.
A study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council advised them against drilling in that region for various reasons such as likelihood of spills, inability to contain or predict the aftermath of such spills, and the tremendous threat it presented to wildlife and native residents.
A few years later, Shell abandoned the project not only after massive protests, but also because little oil was found and they lost $4 billion, rendering it an altogether unsuccessful venture for the big oil company, who was the largest company in the world earlier that year before plunging into the Arctic.
Environmentalist groups and Alaskan natives plan to take legal action against the plan, but Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has said that he believes that the congress mandated plan will hold up in a court of law: "Congress has mandated these lease sales, and so they have to go forward in some regard. They can't just simply unduly delay, so that is a reality that Congress created," he said.
David J Hayes, the former Deputy Interior Secretary under Clinton and Obama, however, disagreed. According to him, the original law only grants access to 2,000 acres of land on the surface and includes other prerequisites for the plan on behalf of the interior beyond just the leasing of the land for drilling.
The Endangered Species Act can’t be invoked as polar bears are currently classified only as vulnerable by WWF.
Bernhardt said that the first auctions, although scheduled for December 22nd of 2021, could possibly happen sooner. If they go through, drilling could start within the next 8 years and persist for at least a half a century; this would be a devastating blow in the fight against climate change.
As the election draws nearer by the day, the stakes for what could potentially spell the end of the decades-long fight between those in favor of drilling and conservationists could not be higher.