Trump’s Fire Sale in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge

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Image: Flickr user Molly

The Trump administration is embarked in a race against time, seeking to complete sale of oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before the Biden administration takes office on January 20, 2021.

The Bureau of Land Management, on Nov. 17th, issued a 30-day “call for comments” to oil companies on where they seek to drill on the 1.6-million-acre Coastal Plain of the Refuge.  The BLM would then set a 30-day “comment period” expiring January 17.  It could then sell leases just before Biden takes office.  The President-elect opposes such oil development.

Locking in oil and gas drilling rights, in a crown jewel of America’s public lands, would be a high point – or better said, low finale – to the Trump administration’s unrelenting drive to throw open the public’s domain to oil drilling, mining, large scale logging, and grazing.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has laid out the strategy in tweets, writing: “This puts us on track to have a lease sale in the 1002 Area (Coastal Plain) as soon as January 2021. Interior’s rigorous environmental review has provided a solid framework to ensure responsible exploration and development . . . We are now within sight of this first-ever lease sale on the Coastal Plain.”

But Sen, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has fought to keep drilling rigs out of the Refuge, vows that it will not happen, saying earlier this week: “President Trump’s last-ditch effort to shortcut environmental laws and jam through Arctic Refuge drilling on his way out the door will not stand up to court scrutiny. Efforts to short-circuit the review process and ignore the law will fail, just as they did for the controversial Bristol Bay mining project.”

The battle over drilling in the Arctic Refuge is – literally – a 40-year war.  Congress created the 19-million-acre Refuge in the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, more than doubling the size of a wildlife range set aside by President Eisenhower in 1960 just before he left office.  The 1980 law designated 8 million acres of the Refuge as wilderness but gave Congress authority to authorize drilling on the Coastal Plain.

The Coastal Plain has been viewed as a golden goose by Alaska’s politicians, a new source of oil that will keep the revenue gusher going as production winds down at Prudhoe Bay.  Ridicule has been visited on the Refuge.  U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, in the Bush 2 administration, described the Coastal Plain as “flat white nothingness.”  Conservative journalist Jonah Goldberg flew over the Refuge, comping away with shots of low clouds merging with snow. Just before the Exxon Valdez spill, President George H.W. Bush waxed eloquent about how caribou love the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, saying the rub against it and have babies beside it.  “You have more caribou than you can shake a stick at,” said “Poppy” Bush.

With time, however, opposition to haul roads, pipelines, and drilling rigs has gained strength.  Its original source of opposition was the Gwich’in Indians of Arctic Village, who have traveled with the 110,000 animals of the Porcupine Caribou Herd for hundreds of years.  The Coastal Plain is calving ground for the herd, a food source for the Gwich’ins, for grizzlies, and for wolves.

A Seattle businessman, Zumiez co-founder Tom Campion, has arranged for business executives, conservationists, and politicians (including Cantwell) to raft rivers in the Refuge and witness its wildlife.  A young former Boeing employee, Subhankar Banerjee, introduced Americans to the Refuge with his exhibit book, “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:  Seasons of Life and Land.”

The 40-year war seemed at an end when a provision to allow Refuge drilling was sneaked into into Republicans’ 2017 tax cut.  Curiously, however, there was no immediate rush to drill – until the 11th hour, 59th minute effort launched on Monday. Oil prices are down, fracking has enhanced domestic production, and Refuge drilling has come to carry political as well as economic risk. Such institutions as JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have said they will not finance drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Democratic Attorneys General, led by Washington’s Bob Ferguson and Maura Healey of Massachusetts, are suing the Interior Department for ignoring potential climate impacts in a fast-warming Arctic.

“Any company thinking about participating in this corrupt process should know that they will have to answer to the Gwich’in people and the millions of Americans who stand with us.  We have been protecting this place forever,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a statement Monday. The Oslo-based research firm Rystad Energy, in a study, has predicted that “companies will be less willing to drill high-risk wells in environmentally sensitive frontier areas, both for financial and environmental reasons.” It lists the Arctic Refuge as an example.

Jim Campbell and Carol Kaska, owners of Arctic Treks, have spent years taking raft parties down the Canning, Kongacut, and HulaHula Rivers, from foothills of the Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea.  The lower reaches of the Canning River are western boundary of the Refuge, in the crosshairs of potential oil exploration. Yet, asked for comment Tuesday, Carol Kaska is optimistic drilling can be stopped.  The public relations impact of a big oil company buying leases “would be huge,” she replied, along with “all the lawsuits in action and in place for all the legal actions taken so far to try to push this through.”

“Drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge has always primarily been a political campaign for Alaska politicians, not something driven by the oil companies.”

Joe Biden has vowed not to allow oil drilling in the Refuge, which gives incentive for the Trump Administration to try to pull something off on the eve of inauguration.  (January 18 is Martin Luther King, and probably out.) Biden takes office at noon on January 20.

The Trump administration has dawdled for three years, perhaps hoping for higher oil prices and greater enthusiasm from the oil companies. Big Oil has been bailing out of drilling plans in Arctic waters. What is the incentive now?  Not much, veteran Alaska journalist Dermot Cole wrote this week, adding: “Companies will have to risk money with the knowledge that the stars are misaligned.  Everything points to bargain-basement bids and a future of administrative delays, court fights, and bad publicity for any company that participates.”

America’s greatest wilderness may yet resist one more assault by the exploiters.  Thanks to a whole list of defenders, from the Gwich’ins of Arctic Village, to conservationists Olaus and Mardy Murie, to Tom Campion and Subhankar Banerjee, to Fairbanks pilot Celia Hunter, to Sen. Cantwell. Capt. Joe Hazelwood played a role too, as the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound just as the Bush 1 administration was lining up votes to drill in the Refuge.

Sen. Cantwell has already received a very personal reward.  During a Refuge visit, she was using a spotting scope to look for wildlife on a neighboring mountainside. At its base, the senator spotted a barren-ground grizzly bear, digging for roots.  Tracking higher up the slope, Cantwell spied a wolverine. “Is this unusual?” Cantwell asked.

Not in America’s greatest wilderness.

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