The U.S. Department of the Interior is inching closer to allowing oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bureau of Land Management issued a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed leasing program for the coastal plain. The BLM released the draft because a 2019 oil and gas lease sale on the coastal plain is planned.
The coastal plain has oil and gas reserves, as Congress has identified. In December 2017, Congress passed the tax act with a rider which opened the Arctic Refuge to drilling. The Interior Department claims that oil and gas from the coastal plain “is an important resource for meeting our nation’s energy demands and creating employment opportunities for Alaska’s North Slope residents.”
During the summer, a public scoping period began during which Americans submitted almost 700,000 comments in favor of protecting the area. People made it clear in public hearings in Alaska and Washington, D.C. that they favor protecting the Arctic Refuge and its coastal plain. Surveys also reveal that the American people oppose developing the Arctic Refuge. The American people have one more chance to make their voice heard about drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Comments on the Draft EIS will be accepted through February 11.
“There is simply no precedent for such a rushed, inadequate review of the impacts of oil and gas development in Arctic wilderness,” said Adam Kolton, Executive Director, Alaska Wilderness League,
“This is a land grab, pure and simple, and the individuals responsible care little about impacts to wildlife or the damage they would be inflicting on Alaska Native people whose subsistence depends on the Arctic Refuge.”
The Arctic Refuge is home to wildlife and people
The Arctic Refuge is 19.6 million acres and about eight million of the acres have been designated by Congress as wilderness. The highest level of land protection is a wilderness designation under the Wilderness act of 1964 and is reserved for pristine areas. President Obama issued a formal recommendation to Congress that the entire Arctic Refuge be protected as wilderness.
“The Arctic Refuge is home to some of the most diverse and spectacular wildlife in the arctic,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The area’s wildlife includes 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species.
“The Arctic Refuge is an ecosystem that is becoming more – not less – vital for birds and wildlife as development and a changing climate chip away at their habitat,” said Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president of conservation policy for the National Audubon Society.
The Arctic Refuge is home to bears and is one of the few places where brown and black bears co-exist. Only about 30,000 polar bears now exist in the world. Every year in September about 50 bears come into the Arctic Refuge, which is the only national conservation area where polar bears den regularly and the most consistently used area for denning by polar bears in Alaska.
There are over 200 species of birds in the Arctic Refuge. Birds migrate from there to every state and territory in the U.S. and some even roam to other continents. There are also hundreds of thousands of caribou in the Arctic Refuge. The largest herd within the Arctic Refuge is the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which returns every spring to calve and raise their young. It is the area where they return that would become the site of gas and oil drilling.
The Arctic Refuge is also home to the Gwich’in people who have lived there for thousands of years. They depend on the area for their survival and are linked to it physically and spiritually. They rely on the Porcupine Caribou Herd and without them they could not survive there. The Gwich’in refer to the herd’s calving grounds on the coastal plain as “the sacred place where life begins.”
Gwich’in tribal member Sam Alexander said at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on November 2 that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would destroy his people’s way of life. “The Gwich’in have lived in this area and relied on the Porcupine Caribou Herd since time immemorial,” he said. “Caribou are how we survive and are integral to who we are and how we define ourselves.”
Image credit: Alaska Region Fish & Wildlife Service, courtesy Flickr