Dear EarthTalk: Is Trump going to be able to finally open up the contentious coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling before his first term ends?
—J.P, Maumee, OH
The debate over whether to open up the most ecologically sensitive part—the so-called 1002 area, or coastal plain—of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling has raged for decades. Known for its scenic beauty but more so as the birthing place of migrating caribou as well as hundreds of species of birds that use the coastal plain as a nursery for their newly hatched offspring before migrating south for the winter, ANWR’s coastal plain is also thought to be rich in oil.
These lands are not only crucial to wildlife, but also to people. Long before the U.S. government named ANWR in 1960, the Gwich’in knew it as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (“the sacred place where life begins”). Now they and other Alaskan natives are working alongside conservationists to protect it.
But in late 2017 Congress paved the way for opening the contentious strip of land by authorizing oil drilling there in its tax bill. But even though Trump is champing at the bit to start drilling in the coastal plain, he’ll have to wait until seismic tests are complete—and there is no way that can happen before the end of his (first) term.
Seismic surveys need to be conducted in order to provide hard data as to how much oil exists in a given area. But the seismic blasts themselves can negatively affect wildlife species’ behaviors and mortality rates. Since oil companies haven’t been able to show conclusively that seismic testing won’t harm protected species (like polar bears), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has held firm against issuing the permits. But the Trump administration is trying to do an end run around these precautions and get the seismic tests approved by the Department of Interior instead. If the Trump administration can get the testing done and the results are to their liking—and they retain power—expect to see oil leases operational in the coastal plain before the end of 2021.
Of course, a new president could stop any or all of this by using the Antiquities Act to declare ANWR a national monument, permanently halting the lease sale and any other future development. Candidate Joe Biden has committed to using his presidential powers to protect ANWR from oil interests, if elected.
This past September, 15 of the Lower 48 states and three of Alaska’s tribal entities each took legal action against the federal government to stop oil leases within ANWR’s coastal plain. Additionally, a consortium of native and conservation leaders convinced major banks (including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs) to pull out from funding fossil fuel projects there.
To get involved yourself, the non-profit Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges has volunteer opportunities and can always use donations. Meanwhile, another way to help is to urge your U.S. Senator to support S. 2461, The Arctic Refuge Protection Act, which calls for permanent protection of ANWR’s coastal plain from development and resource extraction.
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