Trump finalizes plans to open Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling


Darvin Nelson, News Editor

Featured Image Courtesy of Hans-Jurgen Mager via Unsplash

Fossil fuel development has been left alone in the Refuge for decades as it is the most extensive wildlife refuge system in the U.S. President Trump plans to auction oil and gas drilling rights within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — 1.6 million acres of land on the Refuge’s coastal plain. 

In 2017, a bill was passed that allowed leasing for oil and gas companies in which the federal government was obligated to make two lease sales of 400,000 acres of land each by December 2024. The bill was met with backlash from Native American groups and environmentalists who believed it would harm wildlife. According to the Washington Post, the Alaska governor at the time welcomed the bill, saying it would boost economic growth and create jobs.

Soon, the surrounding animals in the Arctic will be sharing their land. Polars bears have a vulnerable conservation status and have a declining population and are already losing land. According to World WildLife (WWF), the loss of ice habitat is one of the primary threats to the survival of polar bears. 

“Due to climate change the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet, shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover by 14% per decade. Compared to the median sea ice cover recorded between 1981-2010, we have lost about 770,000 square miles, an area larger than Alaska and California combined,” reported WWF.

The drilling actions could significantly affect the carbon dioxide levels in the area by releasing potentially 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide which is equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly one billion passenger vehicles.

Photo courtesy of Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

Polar bears also are attracted to human communities. Because their strong noses can sense garbage and stored food, they can come into conflict with people. 

“Polar bears pose a major risk to human life and property,” according to WWF. In recent years, there were more than 20 direct attacks that people have reported in the polar bears range.

Although the drilling can have some negative impacts on the environment, the US government claims to have it under control.

“President Trump’s leadership brought more than three decades of inaction to an end. […] This is no ordinary oil and gas program on public lands,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to the Washington Post. He also said that the plan was carefully made to reduce impact on the environment. 

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also stated, in 2019, that drilling in the Arctic Refuge “does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet.”

The first auction for drilling leases is expected to be held on Dec. 22, 2021, but it’s possible to be held at the end of this year. 

“I do believe there could be a lease sale by the end of the year,” said Bernhardt. 

Of course, by the end of the year, it is unclear who would be president then. Joe Biden says he opposes the drilling and would protect the refuge. However, even if he wins the election, it would be hard for the administration to overturn lease rights once they’ve been auctioned to companies. 

Actual drilling will not start for a while though, and companies who buy the leases have “got a lot of tripwires ahead,” says David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, to the NYT. “Anyone buying a lease is potentially buying years of litigation along with that lease.”


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