As the sun shimmers across a tundra covered with wildflowers and lichen, as many as 80,000 or more caribou calves take their first steps on wobbly legs, many across the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For a brief moment, these 1.5 million acres — habitat for polar bears, wolves, muskoxen, arctic foxes and nearly 200 species of migratory birds — are the center of their nomadic lives. It is the place they will return to when it’s time to have their own young, as it has been for thousands of years.
For generations, the Porcupine caribou herd has sustained the people of the Gwich’in Nation in northeastern Alaska. Each year, the Porcupine caribou undertake an epic journey between their winter habitat in Canada and Alaska south of the Brooks Range, and summer habitat (calving and post-calving) on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. It is the longest land migration route of any land mammal on Earth. This is why the Gwich’in people consider this place sacred. This is why they are fighting to protect it and ensure that the cycle of life will continue for generations to come.
“The coastal plain is sacred to the Gwich’in people and critical to our food security and way of life. It is no place for destructive seismic testing or oil rigs and pipelines,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “The Gwich’in Nation remains unwavering that seismic exploration and oil leasing can never happen on the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, and we will continue to fight until our lands and our way of life are secure. Oil and gas activities here are a direct attack on our way of life and our human rights. We shouldn’t have to be fighting for our human rights this way in 2019.”
Representatives for the Gwich’in people have traveled repeatedly to Washington, D.C., to make their case directly to lawmakers. They have advocated for Arctic Refuge protections to the banks and investors that could potentially fund coastal plain development. And they have gone to the headquarters of companies primed to begin the process of seismic exploration to deliver their message in person.
The Trump administration sees none of this. It is rushing forward to force oil drilling on the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain, willfully undercutting our nation’s bedrock environmental laws and disregarding science and the best practices for protecting the land, wildlife and the human rights of the Gwich’in people.
Fortunately, the fight is far from over.
Drilling in the Arctic Refuge continues to be widely opposed by a large majority of the American people. Public polling has repeatedly shown those who oppose the Trump administration’s efforts outnumber those expressing support by a wide margin. Those opposed to drilling are also speaking out in droves. More than 1.5 million people submitted comments during the scoping and draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) phases of the legally mandated environmental review process, all in favor of protecting these vital public lands during recent public comment periods.
And there are members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who are listening. Together with more than 180 of their colleagues, Representatives Jared Huffman (D-California) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) are leading the charge with H.R. 1146, the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, a bill that would repeal the controversial provision in the Trump administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that mandated oil and gas leasing, development and production in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain. That bill passed on the House floor in a 225-193 vote in late September.
In addition, the House has already passed its Interior Department spending bill that includes language requiring any Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas lease sales meet revenue projections promised by the 2017 Tax Act. The average Alaska North Slope lease sale bid since 2000 is $31 per acre, so to achieve half of $1 billion in promised federal revenue, acreage in the Arctic Refuge would have to lease for at least $2,500 per acre. By setting a floor on what companies must bid to lease land on the Arctic Refuge’s fragile coastal plain, the House Interior appropriations bill holds the Trump administration and members of Congress that voted for the tax bill accountable for false promises they made in 2017.
In February, SAExploration — a company that proposed seismic exploration on the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain via the deployment of fleets of 45-ton thumper trucks and bulldozers over a dense grid of fragile tundra — withdrew its plans after considerable scientific pushback and public outcry. For example, with more than three-quarters of the coastal plain designated as critical habitat for Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, the proposed exploration would have had serious impacts on this threatened population. Polar bears are already facing grave threats from the ongoing loss of sea ice habitat due to the climate emergency, which would be worsened by any development in the Arctic Refuge.
Low-altitude aerial surveys were considered by the Bureau of Land Management as an alternative — and one the agency believed could be done without obtaining permits; however, pushback from conservation groups and direction from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the risk to polar bears “is high enough that it cannot be discounted” caused the company involved to pull out.
And with no seismic exploration, there is no up-to-date information about exactly how much oil might lie beneath the coastal plain. A group of state attorneys released a study that shows that drilling in the Arctic Refuge may not be economically viable, pointing out that with scant revenues, no production for at least 10 years and oil that would be exported rather than used domestically, there is little in the way of economic or energy security reasoning to support carving up the U.S.’s last great wilderness.
In May 2018, a group of institutional investors representing more than $2.5 trillion in assets sent a letter to 100 oil companies and 30 major banks urging them not to invest in drilling in the Arctic Refuge, citing climate and human rights concerns as well as economic and reputational risks. Since then, banks including Barclays, HSBC, BNP Paribas, the Royal Bank of Scotland, National Australia Bank and Société Générale have announced they will not fund drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Trump administration, of course, refuses to acknowledge any of this.
Instead, the administration continues to rush to hold lease sales before a potential political shift in 2020. Joe Balash, former assistant interior secretary for land and minerals management, is on record promising a lease sale this year. And to meet that promise, Trump officials are recklessly pushing forward on an expedited timeline, allowing virtually no time for federal officials to gather and analyze scientific data, examine the negative impacts drilling would have on the landscape and wildlife, or hold meaningful discussions with the local communities and other stakeholders.
In fact, earlier in the year it was revealed that 18 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service memos identifying the types of priority information needed for “planning, developing, and managing an oil and gas program in the [coastal plain]” were withheld from the draft EIS process. These documents — expert memos covering issues including permafrost, water resources and caribou impacts — were also withheld from several Freedom of Information Act requests. Since then, further reports have revealed that throughout the EIS process, “the work of career scientists has at times been altered or disregarded to underplay the potential impact of oil and gas development on the coastal plain.”
And yet, the Trump administration continues to push forward. The final leasing EIS was released the same day as the House vote on the Arctic Coastal and Cultural Plain Protection Act. The final stage of this review process is expected soon, and a lease sale could be held as early as December.
The Arctic Refuge is one of the U.S.’s last wild places, and the coastal plain is its biological heart. The Trump administration’s rush to sell it off to the highest bidder must be stopped. It is up to us to stand up and protect this wild place, to allow it to exist as it has for generations — untouched and sacred.
People across the country are heeding this call. In addition to the Gwich’in people’s efforts, some people are pressuring oil companies and banks that would finance oil drilling to withdraw any plans to drill in the Arctic Refuge. Others are inundating members of Congress with calls and petitions. Still others are holding the Trump administration accountable in our nation’s courts — already, the administration has been taken to task for its reckless rollbacks in the Arctic Ocean and Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Every voice matters. Together, we can stop the Trump administration’s frenzied push to drill and protect “the sacred place where life begins” for the Porcupine caribou herd, the Gwich’in people and all of us who hope to pass this last wild place onto future generations.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.