President Trump’s administration took a landmark step this week in its plan to open up the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, selecting the most aggressive development option for an area long closed to drilling.
By filing the final environmental impact statement on Thursday, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) went closer to holding an oil and gas lease sale for the nearly 1.6 million-acre coastal plain, which is part of the 19.3 million-acre ANWR.
The Trump administration said its ideal plan would call for the construction of four places for airstrips and well pads, 175 miles of roads, vertical supports for pipelines, a seawater-treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site.
The refuge which is home to polar bears, wolves, migratory birds and the porcupine caribou herd , has long been closed off to oil and gas exploration in spite of long-standing interest among members of the petroleum industry. Climate change has made the region even more delicate as melting ice has driven threatened polar bears to dwell in their dens along the refuge’s coastal plain.
President Trump is trivializing climate change, but the BLM accepted that the phenomena is having distinct effects on wildlife in the Arctic. Although the report states that there might be “positive effects on some species,” like geese, eiders, loons and swans, it also declares there could perhaps be “catastrophic consequences” for birds along with the extinction of 69 of the 157 bird species on the coastal plain over an 85-year period, as per an earlier report by Energy and Environment News.
The BLM additionally said certain species like the Beringia bearded seal, which is not presently threatened, would go extinct by 2095 as a result of climate change. These seals depend heavily on sea ice.
But the agency, which is required to divulge climate concerns by law, said “the large magnitude of climate change effects” would be “likely to overshadow smaller magnitude impacts of oil development.” The extinction of numerous bird species could take place “with or without oil leasing and development.”
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 held a controversial provision for opening up ANWR’s coastal plain to drilling and ordered the administration to hold no less than two lease sales within seven years.
Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an official statement that the plan would “protect high-value wildlife habitats and important uses in this area, while advancing the President’s agenda on energy independence.”
Environmental groups condemned the administration’s move.
Defenders of Wildlife issued a statement reproving the BLM’s “destructive, unlawful plan would sell off one of America’s last great wildlands to the highest bidder.”
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive of the nonprofit organization, called the agency’s actions “categorically illegal” and “presents an existential threat to threatened polar bears and is opposed by 70 percent of Americans.”
Lois Epstein, Arctic program director of the Wilderness Society, said, “By opening the entire coastal plain to oil drilling, the Trump administration has ignored data showing likely impacts on wildlife including the Porcupine Caribou Herd and polar bears. The sprawl from oil activities in the coastal plain allowed under the Tax Act would devastate this ecologically sensitive landscape.”
All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation including Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) and the American Petroleum Institute, welcomed the administration’s plan.
API Vice President Erik Milito said in an email, “The Coastal Plain is a small portion of ANWR that has been identified for oil and natural gas exploration and the potential for safe and environmentally responsible energy development in this area is incredibly large and a key part of a long-term vision for U.S. energy security. Responsible access to the Arctic region is in our national security interest, with other nations like Russia, Canada and Norway already actively exploring the area.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who penned the provision instructing the Interior Department to hold lease sales there, said in a statement, “I’m hopeful we can now move to a lease sale in the very near future, just as Congress intended, so that we can continue to strengthen our economy, our energy security, and our long-term prosperity.”
Dunleavy highlighted that every Alaska governor since 1980 has supported opening up the coastal plain “to responsible resource development.”
Ironically, some major oil companies that sought access to ANWR for years have by now packed up and left Alaska, leaving behind a handful of smaller independent firms that are consequently expanding their drilling activities. Royal Dutch Shell was hit hard when their $7 billion well in the Chukchi Sea came up dry. And BP sold its Alaska assets in Prudhoe Bay to Hilcorp just last month. ConocoPhillips, responsible for new discoveries west of the reserve, has said it does not intend to bid on ANWR leases.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Alaska Natives Gwich’in Steering Committee, said, “This document disrespects the Gwich’in Nation and all people in the Arctic and world who suffer the impacts of climate change and nonstop exploitation, while formally scratching the backs of those who seek to desecrate land and dishonor human rights to fill their pockets”.
The BLM needs to hold 30 days of public comment before releasing a final record of decision after which they can hold a lease sale.
The agency’s own official investigation indicated that drilling would disturb native villages, including residents of Kaktovik who are the “primary users” of the refuge. The agency wrote, the 450-person village of Nuiqsut, “could experience impacts on caribou, waterfowl, and fish harvests from development.”
Some residents in Kaktovik have endorsed the idea of drilling on the refuge as they believe that they will receive a share of royalties from any discoveries. In a June interview, Joe Balash, who helped oversee the environmental impact statement as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said he was devoted to opening the area up to energy exploration in part because it would provide the native Alaskans with a source of revenue.
Coincidentally, Balash recently stepped down from Interior Ministry to join the firm Oil Search within less than a week. It is yet unclear whether Oil Search, which is increasing its operations in the North Slope, will bid on the ANWR leases. It is presently developing an area closer to the nearby National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
In a show of opposition to these lease sale, House Democrats voted on Thursday to reverse the provision of the 2017 Republican tax bill that initially opened the door to drilling in the refuge.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of the measure, contended that the Arctic refuge is “sacred” while Alaska’s lone representative in Congress, Don Young (R), called it a “sham bill” that the people of his state did not want.
The bill passed in a 225-to-193 vote mostly along party lines, but it has nearly no chance of being taken up in the US Senate.