Trump Is One Step Closer to Opening America's Largest Wildlife Refuge to Oil and Gas

Why would anyone want to mess with such a beautiful sight?
Photo: Getty

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a nearly 20 million-acre large national treasure. It’s the largest piece of untouched land in the U.S., home to polar bears, Porcupine caribou, and migratory birds. But it won’t be pristine for much longer if President Donald Trump has his way.

His administration released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) Thursday laying out its plan to open up 1.6 million acres of the refuge to oil and gas drilling. This part of the refuge, known as the coastal plain, sits on the North Slope of Alaska along the Beaufort Sea. It’s an expanse of land where the Porcupine caribou come to deliver their calves in the summer and where polar bears den during the winter.

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The public knew this EIS was coming, as the administration has been clear about its plan to begin selling leases on the coastal plain come 2019. Environmental activists and Alaska Natives who oppose the proposal also figured the EIS would be unsatisfactory, arguing that no proper environmental review could be accomplished in such a short time. Now that the draft is out, environmental groups are already criticizing it for using outdated science and conducing an inadequate risk analysis for oil spill impacts and climate change.

“We have to be clear what this is,” said Adam Kolton, the executive director for the Alaska Wilderness League, to Earther. “This is not a legitimate effort to do something in a way that would reduce the risk to wildlife or indigenous people. This is about getting leases sold as quickly as possible.”

The 45-page document lists a range of potential extraction scenarios, but the Bureau of Land Management is pretty clear it wants to open up the entire coastal plain to oil and gas leasing. Some of the alternative plans include shrinking where extraction can take place, but all of those alternatives still propose opening more than a million acres to leasing. All of these extraction scenarios leave open the possibility that leaseholders can request waivers exempting them from various conditions of the EIS.

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Earther reached out to the Department of Interior for comment and will update if we receive a response.

According to the Center for American Progress, the statement fails to adequately address the environmental impact of oil spills and destruction of wildlife habitat. Opponents also argue that the statement underestimates the greenhouse gas emissions that could result from fossil fuel extraction in ANWR.

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Drilling in the refuge would require pipelines other infrastructure, all after the seismic testing necessary to analyze how much oil and gas even lies beneath the surface. All this is extremely invasive, bringing noise, people, and machinery into a landscape that has seen none of that. However, the statement attempts to distance itself from those impacts impacts, noting that selling leases won’t directly harm the environment:

Issuance of oil and gas leases ... would have no direct impacts on the environment because by itself a lease does not authorize any on the ground oil and gas activities; however, a lease does grant the lessee certain rights to drill for and extract oil and gas subject to further environmental review and reasonable regulation, including applicable laws, terms, conditions, and stipulations of the lease. The impacts of such future exploration and development activities that may occur because of the issuance of leases are considered potential indirect impacts of leasing.

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Check out these cool-ass Porcupine caribou. They’re at risk under this plan.
Photo: Getty

The EIS also relies on science that already exists. The bureau didn’t conduct any new studies or surveys to base its decision on the most up-to-date knowledge, which environmental groups were hoping for. It didn’t take the time to re-assess the local polar bear population, which is threatened, and there’s no attempt to understand the way seismic testing could alter the ecosystem.

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“There’s no new science involved in this,” Kolton told Earther. “They’re relying on a lot of data that goes back to the mid-1980s.”

The environmental justice section in the EIS is, however, clear about the impact this development could have on local Alaska Native populations, especially the Gwich’in, who rely on the Porcupine caribou for subsistence. They may suffer an increase in the cost of living if the caribou decline, and public health may be harmed without this stable food source.

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Sure, the federal government could create training programs to include indigenous groups in this new industry, but the Gwich’in consider ANWR’s coastal plain is too sacred to even set foot on. And many of these jobs will go to outsiders who will be forced to build temporary homes in indigenous communities, as the environmental report makes clear. Indigenous people have long been critical about the influx of outside oil and gas workers, who often build mobile home communities critics call man camps, and who some indigenous groups have claimed cause crime and violence.

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This EIS is only a draft, and the public has 45 days to comment on it. The plan could maybe—but not likely—change for the better under new leadership at the Department of Interior now that former Secretary Ryan Zinke is out. The Bureau of Land Management will hold public meetings to get feedback—but only one in the Lower 48 in Washington, D.C. Kolton notes that this says a lot in and of itself; after all, the refuge belongs to everyone, not just those who live in Alaska.

“These are federal lands,” he said. “They’re like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. All Americans have a rightful say and stewardship responsibility to these places. We didn’t design our public lands like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or the Statue of Liberty to be just owned by the people who live locally around those areas.”

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If the final EIS turns out anything like this one, Kolton is sure of one thing: The Trump administration will see opponents in court.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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