The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Photo: Getty

The oil and gas industry is one step closer to accessing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bureau of Land Management released the final environmental impact statement for oil and gas drilling on the refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain on Thursday.

Advocates and environmentalists are disappointed. The Alaskan refuge is one of the last pristine landscapes in the U.S. It’s home to polar bears, Porcupine caribou, and a slew of migratory birds. It’s the land the people of the Gwich’in First Nation are culturally connected to and that they depend on for sustenance.

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President Donald Trump made it one of his missions to open up the refuge to his fossil fuel buddies. Ever since some unnamed friend convinced him to do so, Trump has been bragging about how his administration will finally be the one to ruin this wild place. Republicans in Congress snuck in a bill to sell leases for oil and gas drilling in the 2017 tax bill, and it passed, clearing the way for development.

Now, we’re dealing with those consequences, but there’s still time to save the refuge and all the magic it holds. The House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday—the same day the environmental review was finalized—to stop drilling in the refuge. There are still a lot of questions up in the air.

How soon can drilling begin?

This is a tough question. The final environmental impact statement allows oil and gas lease sales to begin along the coastal plain, which is home to threatened polar bears and calving grounds for the porcupine caribou herd. The Trump administration has been clear about its goal to get those off the ground before the year ends. Once those are sold, there are still a number of steps to drilling operations starting, Kristen Miller, the conservation director of Alaska Wild, explained to Earther.

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Companies will still need to explore the parcels of land they lease to determine their potential. Every step along the way will require individual environmental review, so actual extraction may not occur for some 10 years. Still, environmental impacts will be felt much sooner than that. Once exploration begins, companies will need to construct roads, conduct seismic testing, and bring in drills. All that disrupts the delicate balance of the coastal plain.

“Oil and gas development isn’t just poking,” Garett Rose, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told Earther. “This is intensive.”

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Are there protections in place for wildlife?

Not enough.

Take polar bears, for example. They are a formally threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act. However, the environmental review doesn’t sufficiently address how industry will prevent harm to these animals when they roll into their home, said Miller.

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Polar bears den underground. These dens aren’t always visible, so the Bureau of Land Management suggests using infrared cameras as a means to find these dens and avoid disturbance. But Miller said experts don’t agree that these cameras will work. They’d miss about half of the dens along the coastal plain, she said.

The proposed remediation plans the environmental review lays out have been “insufficient,” said Rose. After all, none of the plans or alternatives offered under the statement minimize damage to the refuge.

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Wait, so much land is actually available to corporate polluters?

The entire coastal plain—all 1.5 million acres. Congress called for leasing a minimum of 400,000 acres within four years of the bill passing. Instead, the Trump administration went all in.

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“This is really supercharging that and offering the whole thing within two years—much more than double the required acreage in about half the time Congress gave them to do it,” Rose told Earther.

That leaves no room for animals like polar bears to thrive. The coastal plain isn’t just denning habitat for these bears, it’s the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, which the Gwich’in hunt for food. Caribou come here to give birth to their young where they can be safe from predators and mosquitos. They’ll now have to share this space with the rumbling and roars of heavy machinery.

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Why is Trump doing this?

Who the hell knows. His infatuation with the oil and gas industry? This move is in line with the rest of the president’s actions toward expanding oil and gas infrastructure in the U.S. Whether it’s oil and gas pipelines or offshore drilling, Trump is all about it.

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That doesn’t mean he’ll succeed, though. Once the bureau issues the record of decision for this project, lawsuits are sure to roll in. Rose said NRDC is ready to file one, and others are certain to join. If the courts can delay this project long enough, a new president may be able to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from its seemingly doomed fate.