In one of its latest attacks on American wilderness, the Donald Trump administration will auction parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drillers on Wednesday.
Lease sales are the culmination of one of the highest-profile environmental battles in the nation. The lands of the North Alaska Coastal Plain are home to polar bears and migratory herds of caribou porcupines that indigenous communities depend on and hold sacred. But the oil industry has long suspected that the soil below the plain contains billions of barrels of oil.
Once the leases at the shelter, known as ANWRs, are sold to energy companies, it will be difficult to get them back. Incoming president Joe Biden could, however, discourage development at the haven by putting regulatory hurdles in the way of drillers.
The shelter has become the center of America’s debate about how quickly to stop drilling and burning fossil fuels as the climate crisis accelerates. Climate experts say there should be no new oil and gas extraction, as the world is already more than 1 ° C warmer than in pre-industrial times. Even if humans stopped using fossil fuels today, the planet would continue to warm.
Oil from drilling west of the refuge in Prudhoe Bay has fueled economic development that the state has relied on to fill its coffers and issue annual income checks for residents. That extraction also led to the most damaging oil spill in history, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker dumped millions of barrels off the southern coast of Alaska in 1989.
Prudhoe Bay “It was the largest oil field ever discovered in North America. Since then, we’ve had more than 1,500 square miles of Arctic oil and gas development in Alaska … but [ANWR] it’s been off limits, ”said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
“For us, it symbolizes what is at stake here. If you can’t draw a line on the tundra and keep this area of the Arctic off limits, then the question is, where can you draw the line and what protected part of the wildlife refuge in the United States will remain off limits? “
President Dwight Eisenhower designated the Arctic refuge in 1960, and in the decades that followed, industry and Republicans lobbied to drill there, as the United States tried to reduce its dependence on suppliers in the Middle East. That momentum continues even though oil is now plentiful and the fracking boom has turned the United States into a net exporter rather than an importer.
Republicans in the US Congress and in Alaska achieved their goal in 2017, when they inserted a provision authorizing the piercing of Trump’s landmark tax bill.
Trump and Congressional Republicans argued that the government’s profits from drilling the haven could help pay for proposed tax cuts, which favored corporations and the wealthiest Americans. They said the development would generate $ 900 million, although an analysis by the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, based on historical bidding data, found it would generate only a fraction of that amount, no more than $ 27.6 million. . That would be split between the federal government and the state of Alaska.
“The fact that this was being offered as compensation was definitely insincere at best, and we thought it was some kind of joke,” said Autumn Hanna, vice president of the group.
Common Sense contributors have argued that the government should not lease any public land for oil and gas drilling now, while commodity prices are low and supplies are high around the world. During the pandemic, demand for oil plummeted as businesses closed and people drove less.
“We are not opposed to drilling for oil and gas, but we are opposed to taxpayers who change little,” Hanna said.
Industry interest in the development of new oil fields is so low that some have suggested that there may be no offers for some tracts of land in the coastal plain. Former Governors Frank Murkowski and Bill Walker have encouraged the state to bid on any unwanted land, and last week a state economic development corporation voted in favor of authorize bids up to $ 20 million.
“If there are no bidders in the lease sales, Alaska will probably never be able to develop our oil and gas potential from ANWR,” Murkowski said in a opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News, where he also noted that the oil and gas industry had historically contributed 70% of state revenue.
On Monday, the Trump administration also dramatically expanded the area where the government can lease public land for oil drilling west of ANWR.
The plan would allow drilling in 82% of the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, an area larger than the state of West Virginia, according to environmental groups, although the Biden administration could reverse that decision more easily than it could delay drilling in ANWR.
Alaska Native groups have faced ANWR’s drilling proposals with lawsuits. For the Gwich’in, the Alaska Native people who have migrated alongside caribou and relied on them for food, the struggle is personal. They formed the Gwich’in Steering Committee in 1988 to oppose drilling in the coastal plain, which they call the Sacred Place where Life Begins.
“We come from some of the strongest people who have ever walked this earth. They survived some of the coldest and harshest winters so we can be here, ”said Bernadette Demientieff, the committee’s executive director, during an AM radio segment last week. “I feel like this is my responsibility as a gwich’in, to protect the caribou.”
Polar bear advocates say habitat is also critical to a population desperate for development and rising temperatures that are melting sea ice. The Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the world. Polar Bear Numbers in Alaska and Western Canada decreased 40% from 2001 to 2010, said Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International.
“If we want to have the best possible chance of maintaining that population until such time as we stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, we must protect them on the ground as best we can,” Amstrup said.
Ken Whitten, a former Alaska state caribou biologist, said the drilling is likely to displace wildlife. “It’s the core of the caribou porcupine herd calving area. It is the main burrowing site for polar bears in the Beaufort Sea, which is becoming increasingly important as the sea ice disappears. “
The plain is a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the coast, so the animals don’t have much choice when they are forced to move, he said. Much of the surrounding area is already being drilled.
“We are a rich nation,” said Whitten. “We can afford to leave some areas alone.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism