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The Trump Administration yesterday finalized one of its most controversial fossil fuel favoritism pledges — the Interior Department approved oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) a pristine area in Alaska that has been considered sacred ground to both Indigenous people and environmentalists. The Refuge is a a 1.56-million-acre area of preserved land in northern Alaska that is critical habitat to endangered wildlife like polar bears and caribou.
Since 1977 when Congress first heard testimony on the potential of drilling in ANWR, Republicans and Democrats have been in a battle over whether fossil fuel extraction should occur in the refuge. Though proponents of drilling have previously claimed that it can be done in a safe and measured manner (i.e. opening up small parts of the total refuge acreage to drilling), the Trump administration has opened the entire coastal plain to the highest bidder for drilling.
Why This Matters: Global markets are awash with cheap oil, thus there’s little reason to begin drilling in one of America’s most iconic natural places unless its a move to directly help oil and gas special interests. As CNN’s Bill Weir explained, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil and gas lobbyist, who days after being sworn into office was placed under investigation for four ethics violations involving former clients. This is a big win for oil companies and their profits but a huge loss for one of the last great remaining wilderness areas on the planet.
Go Deeper: President Ronald Reagan came close to allowing drilling in ANWR right as the Exxon Valdez spill happened and quickly slowed political momentum for the move. However, since then, drilling in Alaska is no safer than it was. As it stands, no viable methods exist to clean up oil from ice, we’re simply not prepared for an oil spill in the Arctic.
Fighting Public Sentiment: This past spring, oil companies pledged to stop financing oil and gas drilling and exploration in the Arctic (which might not actually be such a meaningful commitment after all) but the public is vehemently opposed to this activity. Americans have grown extremely wary of offshore drilling activities especially in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the decades of drilling in the Arctic that Trump’s order will lock us into will continue to be decried by the public.
As the Washington Post wrote, Bernhardt estimated that drilling could begin in roughly eight years and that the operations could last for about half a century.
What’s the Upside? In terms of significantly lowering energy prices for Americans, allowing drilling in ANWR isn’t the answer. As the Center for American Progress explained in its assessment, despite the false claims in the Trump administration’s environmental review and concerns that available data vastly overestimate oil potential in the refuge, the BLM’s own oil production estimates predict a scenario that would be catastrophic for the climate.
In September 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for drilling in the Arctic Refuge which estimated that an average of more than 375,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be released each year during extraction alone—more than 26 million tons during the full 70-year period the agency estimates for oil and gas production in the coastal plain.
Furthermore, based on the administration’s estimate that oil companies will be able to extract up to 10 billion barrels from the Arctic Refuge over a 70-year period, the downstream combustion of extracted oil and gas would mean another 4.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released into the atmosphere.
This is roughly equivalent to two-thirds of U.S. annual emissions in 2017.
Green Community Reaction: Green groups overwhelmingly condemned the move by the Trump administration. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued the following statement from Margaret Williams, managing director, Arctic Program:
“The administration has once again prioritized unsustainable development that will exacerbate climate change. It also has undercut the ability of this sensitive environment to support vast herds of caribou and the people who rely on them, as well as denning polar bears, musk-oxen, and birds from every state and continent.
Even the financial community and major institutions are showing leadership by refusing to fund development in the Arctic Refuge and we urge all to refrain from backing any project that threatens the communities and natural systems of America’s Arctic.”
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