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Trump Administration Drills Down on Alaska’s Arctic Refuge

Insights + Opinion
Steve Hillebrand / USFWS

By Tim Lydon

The Trump administration is barreling ahead with plans to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the country and an area of global ecological importance.


Many refer to the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge—the very place where oil drilling is being planned—as the "American Serengeti." A home for grizzly bears, wolves, musk oxen and a host of other species, the area is famous as the birthing ground for the enormous Porcupine caribou herd, which each spring floods across the refuge's coastal plain in the tens of thousands, arriving in time to raise newborn calves amid fresh tundra grasses. The coastal plain is also the annual destination for millions of migrating birds, who come from nearly every continent on Earth to raise the next generation of swans, terns and more than 200 other species. In late summer these avian visitors disperse to backyards, beaches and wetlands across the planet.

Steve Hillebrand / USFWS

Drilling on the Arctic Refuge has long been opposed by most Americans. Among the staunchest opponents of drilling are indigenous people in northern Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, whose cultures and diets are entwined with the Porcupine herd. They include the Gwich'in people of northern Alaska, who have lived in the Arctic for millennia and reside alongside the Arctic Refuge. Their name for the coastal plain is Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, or "the Sacred Place Where Life Begins," a name reflecting the shared destiny of the caribou and the people. For the Gwich'in and others, fighting against drilling is a cultural imperative and a civil-rights issue.

The refuge has another cultural relevance: It's a unique part of American conservation history. President Dwight Eisenhower's 1960 protection of the area followed decades of research and advocacy by some of the tallest figures in American conservation, including Mardy and Olaus Murie, Bob Marshall and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, among many others. These proponents held that the northeastern corner of Alaska should remain as one of America's last truly wild places, to benefit future generations and the land itself. Informed by the predator-prey research of Olaus Murie and disappointed by a trend toward development in the national parks, advocates pressed for a version of preservation that excluded roads, facilities and interference with predators or other natural ecological forces. They wanted to preserve wilderness.

When Eisenhower's order protected the area's "unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values," it marked the first time federal law specifically protected a thing called wilderness. As Roger Kaye describes in his book The Last Great Wilderness, the move was a precursor to the 1964 Wilderness Act, which the Muries also helped shape and which remains among our bedrock conservation laws. Later, in 1980, Congress affirmed the national significance of the Arctic Refuge by nearly doubling its size.

But to the current administration and its loyal allies in Congress, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is destined to be an industrial oilfield. Caribou, birds, native people and history be damned—to say nothing of the climate, which needs another industrial oilfield about as much as Donald Trump needs another criminal investigation into his presidency.

USFWS

We arrived at this pivotal moment after Republicans, following decades of failed attempts, used the 2017 tax law to pry open Arctic Refuge protections. Led by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, they tacked a provision onto the law's last page, in Section 20001, mandating drilling on the area's coastal plain. The law even amended the refuge's enabling legislation to include oil drilling as a purpose of the refuge. Absurdly, drilling for oil now stands alongside other refuge purposes such as maintaining environmental health, conserving wildlife and protecting the wilderness values Eisenhower singled out back in 1960.

The law also prescribed a strict timetable for drilling. It orders the government to offer a minimum of two massive lease sales in the next 10 years, with the first to be completed by 2021. Each must encompass at least 400,000 acres of the coastal plain and include rights-of-way for a tangle of pipelines, roads, airstrips and other infrastructure, all certain to harm the natural values of the refuge.

Designing those lease sales is the focus of the government's work today. The process began with an initial public comment period last spring, which garnered nearly 700,000 responses that overwhelmingly opposed drilling. We are now in the second comment period, which quietly opened during the holidays and was originally scheduled to close on Feb. 11—a period mostly characterized by President Trump's 35-day government shutdown. The purpose of the comment period is to gather input on an array of generally weak environmental restrictions proposed to govern the lease sales the administration hopes to offer this year. It's all part of a fast-tracked attempt to transfer large swaths of the coastal plain into oil-industry hands before the 2020 election.

Comments have now been extended through March 13, but the shutdown also resulted in the Interior Department postponing a series of public meetings, which would have enabled people to learn more about the sales. Those meetings are now scheduled to take place this week.

Still, comments were accepted throughout the shutdown. Based on published media reports we know they already include recent objections from the Canadian government, the governments of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and several Canadian First Nations groups, who all agree drilling on the coastal plain violates international agreements to protect the Porcupine caribou.

Meanwhile the government is expected to invite more public comment soon, this time on the impacts of seismic testing on the refuge. This destructive process, which will unleash convoys of giant :thumper trucks" onto the coastal plain, was previously conducted in 1985 under the Reagan administration. Monitoring a quarter-century later showed that more than 120 miles of ruts still scar the fragile tundra, their hard angles and straight lines intercepting the ponds and meandering streams of the natural landscape. Although testing was scheduled to begin next month, it has been slowed by evidence it may harm or kill denning polar bear mothers and cubs. Ironically, unseasonable warmth and President Trump's chaotic government shutdown also slowed the process.

The Gwich'in Steering Committee, which includes Alaska Native people who grew up alongside the refuge and have been nourished by its caribou and other resources, are not laying all of their hopes on the comment period. On January 14 their representatives joined other indigenous people in Houston, Texas, to hand-deliver 100,000 letters pressuring SAExploration to withdraw its bid to perform the testing. The Sierra Club reports at least 200,000 emails, calls and letters have been sent to the company, the sole outfit to bid on the project.

The direct appeal to SAExploration reveals how resistance to drilling continues outside of formal comment periods—and it shows signs of success. Last month international bankers at Barclays responded to public pressure by announcing they are unlikely to finance drilling in the Refuge because it is a "particularly fragile and pristine ecosystem."

Here's the final insult about drilling in the refuge: It's not necessary, either economically or for the energy it would produce. Fracking technology and decades of generous public lands giveaways to the oil industry have already given the United States undeniable global energy dominance. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is an unnecessary excess, especially when we consider that the oil from far-off northern Alaska would most likely be sold for corporate profit to foreign markets, not to support America's energy needs. All it would serve is to line a few companies' pockets.

As the accelerated and sometimes confusing work to drill in the refuge moves forward, the time to stop this from happening—and prevent permanent harm to this extraordinary landscape—grows increasingly short. It's also a reminder of the threat the current government and extractive industries pose to our vital public lands. This is an important fight for wildlife, for wilderness, for the rights of indigenous peoples and for the climate. The Arctic Refuge may be remotely located and out of sight for most Americans, but it should not be out of mind.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

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Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

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Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

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Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

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"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.