Why This CA Rep. is the Lead Defender of ANWR in Congress, While AK’s Leaders Want it Drilled for Oil

(EnviroNews California) — Bon Tempe Dam, Marin County, California — In an exclusive sit-down interview with EnviroNews, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) said that with the ushering in of the Biden Administration, he’s hopeful the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR/the Refuge) may finally get the federal safeguards he believes it deserves. “We are closer to permanent protection of the [Arctic] Refuge now than we’ve ever been,” Huffman told Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry.

In the interview, Urry asked Huffman why he’s involved on an issue “so far from [his] home district?” Huffman said that was a “fair question” and responded with several reasons, both personal and political.  But what Huffman didn’t mention is that it is unlikely any of Alaska’s leaders will fight to protect the Refuge in order to maintain its largely unexploited form. In fact, it was Alaska’s own Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) who forced the opening of ANWR for extractive exploits in the first place.

As reported by EnviroNews in Sept. 2019, Murkoswki smuggled a provision into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act causing the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI/Interior) to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) and hold two leasing events before 2025 for the 1.5 million acres encompassing the Refuge’s legendary Coastal Plain.

The pro-industry positions held by Alaska’s political leaders favoring industrial activities in ANWR certainly don’t stop with Murkowski. “As Alaska has shown time and again, we can responsibly develop our resources, under the highest environmental standards, to grow our state and significantly contribute toward the goal of energy dominance for our country,” stated Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan (R) when the Trump Administration moved to open ANWR.

And Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy (R) has been dancing to the beat of the same drum for years, pushing for the opening of the Refuge and the Tongass National Forest, while advocating the dismantling of the “Roadless Rule” – a rule that has long kept some of Alaska’s treasured wilderness areas free from logging, road construction, and hence, other industrial plunder.

In a high-profile visit to Alaska, former President Donald Trump met with Dunleavy on a tarmac, whereafter the Governor said, “We talked about what to do with the Tongass and he’s helped us tremendously in working with his secretaries and his folks in his administration to begin the process of rolling back those rules — rolling back the Roadless Rule – rolling back the ‘Old-Growth Rule.’”

Governor Mike Dunleavy Greets President Trump at Airforce One Refueling

Though Alaska is not in Jared Huffman’s district he is willing to put up a fight for it. As Chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, he co-sponsored legislation this year to reintroduce the Arctic Refuge Protection Act (the Act).

ANWR is the largest national wildlife refuge in the U.S. It spans across more than 19 million acres of land in northeastern Alaska. The Act would prevent oil and gas exploration and development, and designate the Coastal Plain — known as the biological heart of the Refuge — as “wilderness” under the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The area is home to dozens of species of fish, fowl, and mammals, including gray wolves (Canis lupus), caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus).

Polar Bear in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Before the Trump Administration left office in 2021, it attempted to lease parts of the pristine federal land for gas and oil exploration — right in the middle of the insurrection on Jan 6. But the bids that came in were a bust. As EnviroNews reported, only two small companies and the state of Alaska made offers.

But activities associated with those leases went on hold because President Joe Biden signed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas activity in ANWR on his very first day in office. More recently on June 1, the Interior Department, under recently appointed Secretary Deb Haaland, made a move to block the ANWR leases and suspend new oil and gas activities in the Refuge citing “multiple legal deficiencies” and “insufficient analysis” by the Trump Administration. Now, DOI is putting those leases back into the environmental review process with Haaland explaining, “a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program” is needed.

Though Huffman’s bill to protect the land is sitting in the House Committee on Natural Resources, he is optimistic about ANWR’s future. On March 26, 2021, EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry interviewed Huffman at Bon Tempe Dam in Marin County, California about the topic. The three-minute on-camera segment can be seen in the video player atop this story. The transcript reads as follows:

Emerson Urry: Let’s talk about ANWR. You were involved on some legislation there correct?

Rep. Jared Huffman: Yeah, I’ve been leading the legislation to protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge since I got to the Congress.

Urry: Why did you get involved in that issue and fighting for a wildlife sanctuary so far from your home district?

Huffman: Yeah, well, that’s a fair question. Part of that answer is the work that I’ve done most of my adult life as an environmental advocate. I was an attorney at NRDC before I went to the state assembly. But in both my private life and in my public service, it’s just been overwhelmingly focused on good environmental natural resource policy. So, to some extent, I think they had me pegged when I arrived in Congress, and I had a colleague, Rush Holt from New Jersey, who was getting ready to retire; he had been carrying this legislation on the Arctic Refuge for many years. And he kind of took me aside and said he wanted me to take the baton and run the next leg of this relay and I have tried to do that.

Urry: And so, the Trump Administration was literally auctioning that off for oil drilling right in the middle of the insurrection. The state of Alaska was actually the biggest bidder. There were really no major oil companies that showed up to bid on that. [It’s] hard to say whether that’s the kind of the PR blowback or, you know, what do you think is going on there? Is it just they don’t want the bad PR, or there’s not enough oil and gas for them to go for there? Or what’s the scoop?

Huffman: I think it’s a combination of factors. There has been an incredibly effective effort to reach into the financial sector and to bring reputational damage to any major lender that would associate itself with pillaging the Arctic Refuge. And so, one by one, you saw Bank of America and Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs [and] everyone else just sort of say: we’re not going to touch that; we’re no longer going to underwrite drilling in the Arctic. That’s fantastic. We’ve never had that before. But at the same time, market factors. You know, when oil drops below, I think it’s 40 dollars a barrel, you lose money on oil in Alaska. And we saw a plummeting of oil prices to the point where I think at one point, they were trying to pay people to take oil last year during the pandemic.

Urry: Negative, yeah, negative 37 [dollars per barrel].

Huffman: So, we had those factors working in our favor. And then finally, I do think that we are at or near a tipping point where people understand, you know, big initiatives to tap into new fossil fuel reserves are just probably not where we need to go for our energy future. So, I’m pretty encouraged by where we’ve landed. You talked about that lease sale that the Trump Administration just sort of almost artificially forced on the world, and it didn’t go well. So, a lot of reasons to think that we are closer to permanent protection of the Refuge now than we’ve ever been.  

VIEW MORE SEGMENTS FROM THIS ENVIRONEWS FEATURE INTERVIEW SERIES WITH REPRESENTATIVE JARED HUFFMAN

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Why This CA Rep. is the Lead Defender of ANWR in Congress, While AK’s Leaders Want it Drilled for Oil

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FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS

  • Emerson Urry - Producer, Journalist, Transcript, Interviewer, Video Editor, Sound Editor, 3D Animator, Colorist
  • Mary Schwager - Journalist, Author
  • Dakota Otero - Director of Photography, A Camera Operator, B Camera Operator, Assistant Producer
  • Ian Burbage - C Camera Operator, Assistant Director of Photography, Gaffer