Ninety-five percent of Alaska’s coastlines are open to some form of oil and energy exploration, symbolized by the massive Prudhoe Bay complex on the North Slope. This Wednesday, President Biden moved to protect the remaining five percent, canceling oil leases on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; those leases had been rushed through during final hours of the Trump Administration.
The Arctic Refuge is the largest single unit of public lands in the nation, spanning more than 19 million acres. The 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain, left open to development by Congress, is its heart and soul, calving ground for more than 100,000 animals of the Porcupine Caribou herd.
Biden moved to resolve a half-century of conflict in favor of conservation, saying: “As the climate crisis warms the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, we have a responsibility to protect this treasured region for the ages.”
He continued: “Canceling all remaining oil and gas leases issued under the previous administration in the Arctic Refuge and protecting more than 13 million acres in the West Arctic will help preserve our Arctic lands and wildlife while honoring the culture, history, and enduring wisdom of Alaska Natives who have lived on these lands since time immortal.”
“Flat white nothingness” is how Gale Norton, U.S. Interior Secretary under President George W. Bush, described the area. The nation received a far different impression when a young Boeing employee, Subhankar Banerjee, published his photo-filled book, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land.
During June days of the midnight sun, I rafted down the Canning River, which forms the western boundary of the Refuge. The left side of the river bore scars of oil exploration — rusting 50-gallon drums, abandoned equipment, cat tracks etched permanently in the permafrost. The far side rolled out a succession of wonderful experiences, which generations will savor thanks to Biden’s action.
Caribou appeared out of, and disappeared into, mists along the Beaufort Sea coastline. Two muskoxen lumbered through our camp. A snowy plover flapped and made noise, seeking to distract an Arctic fox in search of her eggs. A gyrfalcon, largest of the species, swooped down on our rafts, fearing that we were interfering with her nest.
Upstream, descending out of the Brooks Range, we trained a spotting scope on Dall Sheep. Tom Campion, cofounder of the Zumiez clothing store chain, has devoted his life to protecting the Refuge. He took Sen. Maria Cantwell on a subsequent trip, setting her up with the spotting scope. Cantwell watched a barren ground grizzly at the base of a slope and spotted a wolverine higher up. “Is this unusual?” she asked Campion.
The senator would emerge as an intense defender of the Arctic Refuge (or “ANWR” as oilmen call it). When Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens tried to attach drilling approval to a defense spending bill, Cantwell and Sen. Joe Lieberman mounted a filibuster. Stevens threw a nut-out on the Senate floor, threatening to visit Washington and campaign against Cantwell. He did and she won reelection with 58 percent of the vote.
Alas, a backdoor provision was added to the 2017 Trump tax cut, with the legislation anticipating “revenue” from oil leasing sales in “ANWR.” Cantwell tried to remove it, lost on a 52-48 Senate floor vote. The Trump Administration set about greasing the process, moving urgently when faced with the prospect voters would evict him from office. A lease sale was held just before Joe Biden took office. Big oil companies shied away from it, and some banks said they would not finance oil development in “ANWR.” The sale yielded just two bids, one from a state agency, and only 1 percent of predicted revenue.
True to his campaign promise, Biden nixed the leases. Biden has allowed Conoco to go ahead with its Willow oil development, west of Prudhoe Bay, but has given conservationists three epic Alaska victories: The Biden Administration has canceled lease sales in the Arctic Refuge, blocked a giant proposed open pit mine that would have put Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery in peril, and has ruled no more road building and logging of old growth trees in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
The Biden administration is “preserving one of America’s greatest remaining pristine ecosystems for the benefit of future generations, indigenous communities and our shared climate,” a jubilant Cantwell said in a statement, adding: “Today’s decision overturns the Trump Administration’s last-minute attempt to circumvent environmental laws and jam through drilling in the pristine Refuge.”
No two-legged Alaskans have more to celebrate than residents of the Gwich’in community of Arctic Village. The Porcupine herd is their central food source and material for clothing, and it is integral to their culture. The Gwich’ins call the Coastal Plain calving grounds Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, roughly translating to “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
“Cancellation of these leases is a step to rectify attempted violence against our people, the animals, and sacred land,” the Gwich’in Steering Committee said in a statement. The Gwich’ins called for permanent legal protection of the Coastal Plain.
The oil industry fuels Alaska state government and owns the 49th State’s politics. There are increasing numbers of what the Anchorage Times once called “self-admitted conservationists,” but the state’s politicians piled on President Biden. “The war on Alaska is devastating for not only Alaska but also the energy security of the nation,” declared Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, cheered approval of the Willow project, but took the industry line and defended the lease sales. “Fewer jobs at home, more (oil) imports for California and higher prices for everyone,” Murkowski predicted. “These decisions are illegal, reckless, defy all common sense and are the latest signs of an incoherent energy policy from President Biden.”
Never mind that domestic energy production is at an all-time high. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, took a more nuanced view, saying the administration was “capable of listening to Alaskans when it approved the Willow Project.” Now, in Petola’s view, it is ignoring the 49th State’s capacity to produce “critical minerals we need for our clean energy transition” as well as the “domestic oil and gas to get us there.”
Those words prompted more personal memories — of reading about U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ 1950s Brooks Range trip to visit naturalist friends the Muries . . . of pilot and Camp Denali co-founder Celia Hunter suffering a fatal heart attack at her desk, mobilizing opposition to Bush Administration drilling plans . . . of huddling in a tent with temperatures outside at 40 below zero.
Most of all, I remember the great mountain amphitheater where the Marsh Fork joins the main Canning River. The sun never set but moved around the sky, bathing one peak after another in golden light. We stayed up to 4 am, drinking Makers Mark, watching in awe, and thanking our lucky stars that the raft trip came just ahead of the mosquito hatch.
As we finally headed to the tents, one party member smiled and reflected, “It’s going to be a Gwich’in day!”