The Trump Administration is planning on auctioning off drilling rights to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska beginning Jan. 6 of next year, just two weeks before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden. This last-minute effort to pursue oil drilling in the ANWR has sparked disputes that are greater than ever before.
Controversy over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not a recent development. In fact, debates over oil drilling began in 1980 when President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which gave rights to develop oil reserves in the Arctic Refuge as long as congressional approval was granted.
The Republican-dominated Congress approved legislation to open up a 1.5 million-acre coastal plain area of the ANWR known as Section 1002 to exploration and oil drilling in the tax reform bill of 2017. The leasing sale of the Arctic Refuge is the last effort to achieve what the Trump Administration has failed to do itself: destroy one of the last standing wildlife refuges that has yet to be touched by human industry.
Drilling the coastal plain would encroach on the birthing grounds of Porcupine caribou herds as well as the denning areas of the endangered Beaufort Sea polar bears and hundreds of bird and marine species would be threatened by the pollution produced by drilling and potential oil spills.
Oil drilling will not only harm local wildlife and ecosystems but contribute to the greater problem of climate change as the United States fossil fuel industry has already produced 5.9 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gasses in just the past three years.
Not only would drilling disturb wildlife but the indigenous Gwich’in people who live on the border of the ANWR rely on the Porcupine caribou as a resource of food and lifestyle. The lands and wildlife of the Arctic Refuge also hold cultural value to the Gwich’in people.
Economically, the benefits of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are minuscule and uncertain. Major banks including Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo have refused to fund the drilling efforts in the ANWR due to public backlash and also because of the sheer risk Arctic drilling holds.
Additionally, the oil industry has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and prices of oil have plummeted as demands are low due to a sudden stop in travel and transportation use, putting oil drilling investors at greater risk. The lease of the Arctic Refuge also does not allow for immediate drilling as exploration has yet to be done and, according to the Energy Information Administration, the ANWR would only be profitable and increase the total crude oil production in the United States after 2030.
By that time, the surging renewable energy industry is likely to take over and with the new Biden Administration’s climate plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, our reliance on oil will soon become obsolete. Oil drilling in the ANWR is a step backward from our progress to become more environmentally friendly and is not worth the cost of losing the culturally sacred lands of the Gwich’in people and the wildlife that is already threatened by climate change.
Those who advocate for oil drilling in the ANWR claim that it would provide substantial economic benefits. One group of Alaskans, the Inupiat Eskimos, hope that oil drilling will help fund urban development as well as public services including education, medicine and sanitation. Because about 85% of Alaska’s state budget is from oil revenues supplied mainly by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, many conservative Alaskans also refuse to pass on an opportunity to boost this prominent sector of their economy.
However, none of these economic benefits are beyond doubt as the drilling process takes decades to start, the amount and accessibility of crude oil has yet to be explored, and as reported by the EIA: “market dynamics could limit the amount of increased Alaskan production processed domestically… [and] demand for gasoline in the United States is expected to decline through about 2040 because of improvements in fuel economy.”
A potential economic boost in the collapsing oil industry during a time of environmental reform and a move towards renewable energy resources is not worth the detriment of a wildlife refuge, a loss of sacred land, and an overall depletion of global environmental health.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last of its kind in the entire world and the largest national wildlife refuge in the country. It was established to protect the Arctic ecosystem and the immensely diverse number of species as it is a refuge after all. There are no roads or established trails and the ANWR is only accessible to the public through air travel. It is one of earth’s most valued and natural masterpieces.
We only have so much time before we lose another species before another ferocious natural disaster kills thousands and before it is too late to reverse the effects of human greed. To threaten the natural world is not “development,” it is destruction.