Trump Administration Moves Closer To Leasing Oil Drilling In Alaska's Arctic Refuge

A polar bear stands up near Kaktovic in the  Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Danita Delmont/Shutterstock

The prospect of oil drilling in America’s Arctic just got a lot closer as the Trump administration finalizes plans to open up a protected part of Alaska to oil and gas drilling. 

US Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced plans on Monday for an oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The decision by the Interior Department is the follow-up of a Republican-passed tax bill in 2017 that instructed the federal government to conduct oil and gas leasing in the refuge.

The oil industry and backers of the plan say the move will “support energy security, job creation, and economic growth.” However, the announcement has been heavily criticized and a range of groups have pledged to stop the plan coming to fruition. Environmentalists and some members of Alaska's Indigenous communities are not happy with the plan, arguing that the decision to invite fossil fuel giants into the rugged wilderness in northeastern Alaska could be a disaster for wildlife and people who have lived for millennia. 

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, caribou, wolves, eagles, lynx, wolverines, martens, and beavers. Many fear oil exploration and industrial development in the area could put these species at risk. Conservationists are especially concerned about how the drilling might affect the main calving ground for America's largest caribou herd, the Porcupine herd.

Even beyond the immediate concern for biodiversity, many are also worried about what this might mean for mitigating climate change. A 2019 analysis by the Center for American Progress found that the lease sales would result in the release of more than 4.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, roughly equivalent to two-thirds of the US's annual emissions in 2017.

“As demand for oil plummets and climate impacts wreak havoc across the world, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuel corporations makes zero sense,” Tim Donaghy, Greenpeace USA Senior Research Specialist, said in a statement.

“If Trump truly cared about creating jobs, he’d invest in the growing renewable energy economy and begin a just transition away from oil and gas. In reality, he’s only interested in giving handouts to billionaires.”

Axios reports that some of the world's largest energy companies have already said they will not be seeking leases there and several major banks have said they would not finance development.

“Scientists have been silenced and sidelined. Environmental laws are being trampled. And front-line Indigenous communities are being disrespected, ignored and told their culture and food security is irrelevant,” Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.

“We will continue to fight this at every turn, in the courts, in Congress and in the corporate boardrooms.” 

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