Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge Is Now Open For Oil Drilling


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJan 7 2021, 17:31 UTC

Polar Bears wander around Kaktovic near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska. Danita Delimont/

After decades of pushback and protest, the Trump administration has started to auction off oil drilling leases deep in Alaska's wilderness. However, the sale has not quite gone to plan so far.

Auctions for oil and gas drilling leases in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the wildest place left in the United States, kicked off on Wednesday, January 6, after a federal judge ruled on Tuesday that the sales can go ahead.


Despite some expectations, however, the auction was a flop. Fossil fuel giants and large energy companies were almost wholly disinterested and did not put in any bids. As Reuters reports, this left the state agency, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, as the only bidder for most of the leases. The remaining leases didn't attract bids or were flogged to small energy firms. Much of the argument for allowing the oil and gas industry into this area was that it would bring in billions of dollars to the region – the largest national wildlife refuge in the country – but lease sales on January 6 raised just $14.4 million in bids.

“This lease sale was an epic failure for the Trump administration and the Alaska congressional delegation. After years of promising a revenue and jobs bonanza they ended up throwing a party for themselves, with the state being one of the only bidders,” Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League which has been against the sale, said in a statement.

“We have long known that the American people don’t want drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the Gwich’in people don’t want it, and now we know the oil industry doesn’t want it either.”

The battle for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been pitted by some as one of the longest and biggest environmental battles of recent US history. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains 78,000 square kilometers (30,100 square miles) of rolling tundra and wetlands in the Alaska North Slope region that’s home to an incredible array of American biodiversity, including polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, moose, caribous, wolves, eagles, lynxes, wolverines, martens, and beavers.


Much of the drilling controversy in the area specifically focuses on the refuge's coastal plain, known as the "1002 area," which includes the main calving ground for America's largest caribou herd, the Porcupine herd. Ever since discussions around opening the "1002 area" to fossil fuel exploration and industrial development started in the late-1970s, environmentalists and some indigenous groups are been working to preserve the area's wildlife and heritage

While the flop of this week’s auction hints at good news for the area’s conservation, those defending the wildlife refuge say the battle is far from won. As a last-ditch attempt to stop the damage, some are pushing President-elect Joe Biden to halt leasing processes and suspend all oil activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge immediately after his inauguration on January 20.

“Today's coastal plain lease sale is a continuation of this administration's disregard for human rights, climate science, and public process,” a large coalition of environmental groups and indigenous organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a joint statement [PDF].

“This has been a flawed process from the start that altered or disregarded scientific data on the impact of drilling on land and imperiled wildlife and failed to adequately consult with all frontline Alaska Native communities, in particular the Indigenous Gwichʼin of Alaska and Canada who have strongly opposed oil extraction. The Gwich’in and Iñupiat people have been the caretakers of Alaska’s Arctic for millennia — and selling the coastal plain for corporate profit disregards that legacy of stewardship.”