Trump Administration Drills Down on Alaska’s Arctic Refuge
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.
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.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.