(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — Washington D.C. — On September 12, 2019, the Trump Administration announced its plan to open up Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to commercial oil drilling for the very first time. The victory for the oil industry came in a Department of the Interior (DOI) press release outlining the “Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program.”
The impetus for the EIS was a provision Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) added to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which required the DOI to hold two leasing sales by 2025 on the 1.5 million acres encompassing the refuge’s coastal plain. Democrats had been able to successfully protect the ANWR from Republican attacks — until Trump’s tax bill.
“Arctic Refuge drilling passed, not because of popular sentiment or because of any urgent need for its speculative oil, but because it was jammed into a larger tax bill, skirting a full, fair and open debate,” Adam Kolton, Executive Director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The Trump Administration considered three proposals and chose the plan the DOI considered most extreme: open the entire coastal plain to oil exploration and development. The Administration saw fit to make more than five percent of the refuge — 1.56 million of 19 million acres — available for fossil fuel exploration.
“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). Alaska’s major oil spills include the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 2006 Prudhoe Bay oil spill, and a 2009 leak at BP’s Lisburne Field caused by frozen pipes — all events Sullivan failed to mention.
No Democrats voted in support of opening the ANWR. It passed 51-48 in the Senate and 224-201 in the House, where 12 Republicans sided with the Democrats. According to the press release, the next step is for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to publish a Record of Decision “no earlier than 30 days after the official Notice of Availability for the EIS is published in the Federal Register.”
Representative Tom McClintock from California (R) stated, “After years of unwarranted opposition from out-of-state environmentalists and obstructionist politicians, I am glad to see this administration work the will of the American people. It’s steps like this that will ensure American energy independence for future generations.” But drilling Alaska’s pristine wilderness areas does not appear to be the will of all American people.
On the same day the Trump Administration sent out its release touting the opening of the ANWR for development, the now-Democratic House voted 225-193 to pass the stand alone Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. According to the NRDC, the bill would restore the protections, which oil industry allies stripped through circumvention of normal legislative channels.
“America wasn’t fooled by GOP leaders’ backhanded tax bill maneuver to destroy these precious wildlands for private profit,” said Susan Casey Lefkowitz, Chief Program Officer for the NRDC. “‘Refuge’ means a place of safety and shelter from danger,” she continued. “This vote reaffirms the country’s overwhelming intention to protect the Arctic Refuge — its sensitive coastal plain and wildlife, our climate, and the human rights of the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people — from industrialization and exploitation by polluters.”
Over twenty Republicans who supported drilling the ANWR, both inside and outside Alaska, had their quotes included in DOI’s press release, which contained no dissenting voices or concerns with the plan or the process through which it was vetted. Conservative stalwarts like Rep. Don Young (R-AK), who has been working for 46 years to get the ANWR opened, and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), lauded the plan’s ability to improve the economy.
“I applaud the Trump Administration for taking action toward opening the ANWR coastal plain to energy exploration. This step helps establish an all-of-the-above energy policy that creates jobs, lowers energy prices, and reduces America’s dependence on foreign oil,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA).
In comparison, a long list of environmental protection groups signed onto the NRDC’s press release and added their voices to highlight the impact drilling would have on nature and humanity. The North Alaska Environmental Center, the Earthjustice Legislative Counsel, and Trustees for Alaska praised the passing of the House bill while excoriating Republicans for using backdoor riders and underhanded tactics to get ANWR drilling included in the Tax Act in the first place.
“We are proud to stand with Alaska’s Indigenous Gwich’in people — for whom the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is sacred ground — and grateful to those who cast historic votes today to right a terrible wrong,” said Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society.
Scott L. Montgomery, lecturer for the University of Washington, says in his Newsweek article that the portion of the ANWR opened for development is the most biodiverse in the entire Arctic, “with 45 species of land and marine mammals and over 200 species of birds from six continents.” It also includes the largest concentration of polar bear dens, a species that is severely threatened by global warming.
Animals aren’t the only ones who would be affected by development in the ANWR. Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said this to the NRDC:
The Gwich’in Nation and the Porcupine Caribou Herd are entwined. The caribou’s survival is our survival. We give thanks today to all who stood with the Gwich’in and who will stand with us every step of the way to protect the sacred coastal plain and our way of life.
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