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© Arto Saari (Appeal to Reason Media)

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling controversy, explained

How the Department of the Interior plans to unravel decades of protection for one of the country's wildest places.

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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last unspoiled landscapes in the world, occupies 19.3 million acres of stunning wildlands in northeastern Alaska. Bordered by Canada’s Yukon Territory to the east and the ice-filled Beaufort Sea to the north, the refuge is bisected by the Brooks Range, whose snowcapped peaks offer some of the most remote alpine scenery in North America.

The Mollie Beattie Wilderness, the second largest designated wilderness in the United States, protects nearly 8 million acres of the Arctic Refuge. There are no roads or trails in the refuge, so a visit requires that you arrive by plane, boat, or foot. It’s worth the effort — once inside, you’ll explore an ancient landscape that hosts an unbelievable bounty of wildlife. Golden eagles fly overhead, wolves roam the vast tundra, and bowhead whales swim along the coast. In autumn, caribou rival the great African mammals as they undertake one of the largest land migrations on Earth; in winter, polar bears come ashore to birth and nurture cubs.

It is, in a word, magnificent.

Unfortunately, like many of our public lands, the refuge is currently in the crosshairs as the Trump administration aims to open up its coastal plain for exploratory studies that could undo decades of protection and allow drilling for oil and gas in one of the planet’s most pristine places.

Rafting on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Cathy Hart / Design Pics

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a subject of controversy for decades.

The Arctic National Wildlife Range was established in 1960 by Public Land Order 2214. In those early days, it comprised 8.9 million acres, but was doubled in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and designated 8 million acres as wilderness. It also set aside 1.5 million acres in the coastal plain for wildlife studies, a determination of oil and gas potential, and an analysis of possible effects of resource extraction.

This portion of the refuge, the coastal plain, has become a political hot rod. Studies resulted in a 1987 impact statement with the conclusion that “expected displacement and reduction of wildlife populations and natural processes would cause a major reduction in the value of the area as a pristine, natural scientific laboratory.”

Despite this assessment, pro-drilling legislation began circulating almost immediately. The push included efforts by then-Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel, and was furthered in subsequent years by Republican members of Congress and presidents on a nearly annual basis. The largest threat came in 1995, when Republicans attempted to pass the Balanced Budget Act, which came with a provision that would open up the refuge to oil and gas extraction. While the act passed in both the House and Senate, it was ultimately vetoed by President Clinton, who also attempted to designate the Arctic Refuge as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act during his tenure, albeit unsuccessfully.

While President Obama pushed for further protection of the refuge via an expanded wilderness designation during his time in office, the overall controversy has largely quieted in recent years due to a lack of demand for oil supplies. It’s only been resurrected recently as part of a short-sighted pro-oil stance by the Trump administration and a small group of Republication legislators.

Now under the new administration, that same area has come back into play for drilling.

Shortly after taking office, President Trump unveiled his fossil fuel-dependent “America First Energy Plan.” In his first months, he signed several Executive Orders designed to pave the way for opening previously protected lands and waters for resource extraction. In May, Interior Secretary Zinke signed an order that requested an updated assessment of untapped potential oil and gas reserves in Alaska, which could then be used to make a case for drilling in the Arctic Refuge. In an August memo, it was revealed the Department of the Interior wanted to lift a longstanding moratorium on exploratory seismic studies in the refuge.

While any drilling in the protected area requires an act of Congress, Republicans are attempting to bypass protocol by utilizing the budget reconciliation process, where passage requires a simple overall majority vote rather than the traditional two-thirds. Using this strategy, both halves of Congress recently passed budget resolutions that require their respective natural resources committees to source several billion dollars in additional revenue over the next decade, a move that paves the way for pro-oil legislators to create potential income by opening up the refuge for drilling.

There are many reasons why protection of the Arctic Refuge matters — economic and social.

“The connection between people and nature runs deep,” says Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society. “And the health of our wild places is directly tied to the health of our families, communities and our economy.” The refuge’s famed wildlife populations require habitat protection in order to migrate, reproduce, and thrive. Environmental preservation also affects people across the region who benefit from clean air and water made possible by its current protections. In addition, studies show that the refuge has already suffered the effects of climate change, from melting sea ice to receding permafrost. Scientists fear that resource extraction will only exacerbate these issues.

Protecting the Arctic Refuge is also good for business. Outdoor recreation brings $887 million in consumer spending per year nationally, according to the Outdoor Industry Association; in 2016, President Obama signed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act, which moved to include the industry’s contribution to the economy in our GDP. In addition, government offices dedicated to outdoor recreation exist in several states that reap economic benefit from public land use and the jobs it creates.

There’s also a human element. For the indigenous Gwich’in people, these lands are deeply important. Their name for the coastal plain, Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, translates to “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” referring to the birthing grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd they’ve relied upon for sustenance for thousands of years. The people fear that drilling in this area will have an adverse affect on the herd, disrupting their annual migration and calving.

Here's who is taking action to protect the Arctic Refuge from drilling.

Even as it faces the most aggressive threats to date, the Arctic Refuge has passionate legislative defenders in its corner. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced legislation to help protect the Arctic by designating it as wilderness. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has lead the defensive fight, spearheading the defense of the Refuge with passion and conviction at a recent energy committee hearing. And Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) joined their fight to remove a rider on the budget bill that advanced Arctic Refuge drilling. Unfortunately that vote failed, but the next round of this legislative fight couldn’t have stronger champions on the side of the Arctic Refuge.

While enacting permanent legislative protection against drilling has proved a tricky battle, efforts benefit from the pressure of environmental groups including The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation, The Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and Alaska Wilderness League. Individual voices are important, too — to learn what you can do to help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling, visit The Wilderness Society’s Too Wild To Drill website, where you can take action and join the fight to preserve this incredible place.