Last December, shortly after the election of President Donald Trump, I wrote in the Seattle Times that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “faces its most serious threat since its protection in 1960.”
At that time it was not clear how the threat would emerge or what form it might take. I’m sure some skeptics – and many supporters of President Trump – dismissed my warnings as paranoia, with no facts to support my concerns that the Trump administration and Alaska politicians would try to turn the pristine wilderness of the refuge into an oil field.
Well, I’m sorry to say we now have overwhelming evidence of not only the Trump administration’s brash and irresponsible plans to populate the refuge with oil rigs and pipelines, but also the means with which they intend to make it happen.
The most recent evidence was revealed by Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post earlier this month. As Eilperin reported, the Department of the Interior is seeking to update 1980s-era regulations in a way that could open the door to oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge and, in particular, in the refuge’s ecologically-sensitive coastal plain.
In an August 11 memo obtained by The Post, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlined changes to Department of Interior regulations that would allow “exploratory activities” – such as exploratory drilling and seismic studies – in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time since 1986.
While the Interior Department has implied that such research is a harmless way to gather information, seismic studies can be extremely harmful to the sensitive Arctic ecosystem. In many parts of the coastal plain, trails from seismic studies completed in the mid-1980s remain visible today (see the picture, above) and damaged tundra vegetation has still not fully recovered.
The Post story concluded that the “Trump administration is quietly moving to allow energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” But, in fact, the administration has been incredibly open and forthright about its intentions.
During a visit to Anchorage on May 31, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke promised to re-invigorate the Alaska oil industry as he signed a secretarial order aimed at increasing oil production in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and updating estimates of the amount of oil that lie beneath the Arctic Refuge.
More recently, the Interior Department’s Counselor for Energy Policy, Vincent DeVito, told a conference of ocean researchers in Anchorage that “the untapped potential of ANWR is significant. But it is the Trump administration that had the guts to step up to the plate and facilitate production.”
And President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal went so far as to assume that federal oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Refuge would reduce the deficit by $1.8 billion, with the first lease sales beginning in 2022 or 2023.
Thankfully our systems of checks and balances ensure that the Trump administration will face many hurdles as it strives to open the Arctic Refuge to the highest bidder. Just two years ago, a federal judge ruled against efforts by the state of Alaska to launch new seismic studies in the Arctic Refuge, and any new attempts to pursue “exploratory activities” would face considerable legal challenges.
Additionally, even if seismic studies were to proceed an act of Congress would be required to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling, and it is far from clear Republicans would have the votes necessary to pass such legislation.
Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that the Trump administration and its friends in the oil and gas industries have made it a top priority to open the Arctic Refuge for drilling and jeopardize one of our country’s most sacred and unspoiled chunks of wilderness – despite the objections of millions of Americans who want to preserve and enjoy our wild places.
In the face of the Trump administration’s aggressive offensive against Alaska’s wilderness, it is clearer than ever that, as I wrote in December, it is urgent for everyday citizens to be relentless, vigilant and energized to defend them.
At the Campion Advocacy Fund, we are formulating our own plans and working with our many colleagues in the environmental community and the outdoor industry to mount a united defense of the Arctic Refuge. We will have more to say about our plans in the months ahead. In the meantime we encourage everyone who cares about the Arctic Refuge to do whatever you can to voice your opposition and shine a light on the Trump administration’s irresponsible and insidious plans.