This blog was co-authored by Ellen Montgomery, Director of the Public Lands Campaign for Environment America.
On January 6, though overshadowed by the attack on the U.S. Capitol building, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced the results of the first ever lease sale of land in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling. While the sale was described by Senator Dan Sullivan as “momentous and historic,” only half the available tracts received bids, and those generated less than 1% of the expected 10-year revenue.
Since President Jimmy Carter created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in its current form in 1980, there have been many attempts to open it up for drilling. It remained safe from oil and gas exploration until 2017, when Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska snuck a provision mandating two lease sales into the Trump Administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. These sales were supposed to help pay for the massive tax cuts also placed into the bill.
But drilling in the Arctic has always been a bad idea, and the massive failure of this first auction - with only $14.4 million in revenue and almost all of the leased tracts bought by the state of Alaska itself - shows just how bad an idea it is, and that the entire world knows it.
There are as many reasons that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a bad idea as there are caribou that call it home. Here are just three of them:
The financial world that supports the oil and gas industry increasingly agrees that drilling in the refuge is too problematic. All six major U.S. banks announced that they would not finance drilling in the Arctic, along with the five biggest Canadian banks and dozens of other financial institutions from around the world. That ambivalence extends to the oil industry itself. No mid-level or major oil and gas companies entered bids, and just two small companies secured a single tract each. Chief executive Ben van Beurden, when asked if Royal Dutch Shell planned to bid in the auction, said “oh no no no.”
And yet, the sale happened. Two companies now have leases for tracts of land in the refuge, and Alaska may yet try to have the fossil fuels extracted from the land it leased. So what can be done?
First, Congress can revoke the sections of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act mandating lease sales. This is a necessary step, as only the first required sale has occurred, and another must occur before the end of 2024 according to the law. The House passed such a repeal in 2019, then called the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, but a repeal needs to pass both the House and the Senate before the next sale occurs.
Second, and more importantly, Congress can officially designate the entire Arctic National Wildlife refuge as wilderness. Designated wilderness areas receive the strongest protections, but most of the refuge - including the Coastal Plain - is not officially wilderness despite the recommendation of President Obama’s administration. By making such a designation, Congress could prevent any development within the refuge and permanently protect its land, water and wildlife.
As Stephen Trimble writes in Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, “Our bargain is this: we leave the Refuge alone, we leave the Porcupine Caribou to their calving, the Beaufort Sea polar bears to their denning. We protect this place. And, in turn, we lead lives less impoverished. We fall asleep knowing wilderness has a shelter, and at least one place remains where the ancestral richness of life survives."
Caribou along the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Danielle Brigida/USFWS, CC BY 2.0