BLOG POST

Drilling in the Arctic is a terrible idea. Let’s stop before we start.

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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:

  • Drilling in the refuge would damage the habitat of the wolves, muskoxen, arctic foxes, wolverines, brown bears, golden eagles, tundra swans and snowy owls that call it home. Drilling in the refuge would damage the breeding grounds of hundreds of species of migratory birds that connect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the rest of the United States and all seven continents in their journeys around the world. Drilling in the refuge could damage a third of the rapidly shrinking denning grounds of endangered polar bears, and the winter grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, which serve as an integral resource - physically and culturally - for the Gwich’in people.
  • The world is moving away from fossil fuels. Renewable energy is booming across the country, and is poised for even bigger gains in the near future. Meanwhile, some analysts are suggesting that 2019 may have been the peak year for global oil and gas demand. And the American public is supportive of renewable energy and government action against climate change. It has always been a bad trade to irreparably damage a priceless landscape for the temporary consumption of fossil fuels. It’s an even worse trade when the technologies to replace our dependence on those fossil fuels are ready to go.
  • The American people don’t want the refuge drilled. Over 40,000 people submitted comments to the BLM during the comment period and the agency reported that the vast majority were opposed to any leasing at all. This resulted in BLM removing almost 500,000 acres of land from the auction. When legislation to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was introduced in 2016, almost 1 million people sent in comments supporting such protection and opposing drilling in the refuge.

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