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Alaska Wildlife Refuge Vulnerable to Drilling

The Department of the Interior finalizes the plan for leasing out the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain

The Federal Government has finalized the Environmental Impact Statement to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for oil drilling.

The hands of industry and development have clawed at wilderness since pioneers began pushing westward. Oil has tempted landowners for decades, but the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve denied the resource to industry interests in order to preserve its unique, ancient landscape.

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That landscape is threatened. In the perpetual words of writer and wilderness activist Robert Marshall, “And so the path of empire proceeded to substitute for the undisturbed seclusion of nature the conquering accomplishments of man.”

“[The Oil and Gas] Leasing Program will help meet the long-term energy needs of the nation, support job creation and economic growth of rural Alaskan communities,” The Department of the Interior, acting through the Bureau of Land Management, announced on September 12. “The [Tax Cuts and Jobs] Act directs the Secretary of the Interior, through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to establish two area-wide leasing sales, not less than 400,000 acres each, along the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

The legal authority for the Oil and Gas Program is found in Public Law 115-97, otherwise known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Written into Title II, section 20001(page 184) are simple yet powerful exemptions for the oil industry’s special interests. For example, “Section 1003 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (16 U.S.C. 3143) shall not apply to the Coastal Plain.”

The intent of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is clearly to honeypot Alaska into opening up the refuge to industrial interests. The Act sets aside standards in the Mineral Leasing Act as the Federal Government plans on claiming royalties at a rate of 16.67%, when standard royalties are 10%.

While the Mineral Leasing Act Section 35 gives 37.5% of money made from sales, bonuses, royalties and rentals of public lands to the State, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act declares 50% of the money made will go to the State Treasury.

The Trump Administration declared $1.8 billion dollars of oil could be mined, essentially promising Alaska $900 million in revenue. The latest federal report suggests the potential income is half of that, approximately $905 million in revenue for the government and significantly less for Alaska.

The pristine wilderness within the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge. | Photo by Greg Wiler, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The projections continue to fall as independent studies conclude significantly lower revenue opportunities based on other local lease sales. How low can you go? Alaska’s governor is prepared to open up the wildlife refuge no matter the cost.

“Forty years after Congress selected the Arctic Coastal Plain for potential energy development, the Trump Administration is making good on that decades old potential,” Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said. “I join with all Alaska Governors since 1980 in assuring the nation and the world that we develop our natural resources responsibly. I look forward to the lease sale scheduled for later this year.”

In 1929, a 28-year-old forester named Robert Marshall visited the landscape which would eventually become Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on summer vacation. He chose that area because it was the most remote section of Alaska.

Marshall published an essay titled The Problem of the Wilderness where he describes the extraordinary benefits of the wilderness, considers the drawbacks of preserving wild lands and calls wilderness allies to action in the face of society’s aggressive advance into nature.

“Within the next few years the fate of the wilderness must be decided,” Marshall wrote. “This is a problem to be settled by deliberate rationality and not by personal prejudice. Fundamentally, the question is one of balancing the total happiness which will be obtainable if the few undesecrated areas are perpetuated against that which will prevail if they are destroyed.”

Alaska Governor Mike Dunlevy is prepared to open up the wildlife refuge no matter the cost.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the network of protected lands in the United State’s National Wildlife Refuge System. The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been referred to as “The American Serengeti” for its rich biodiversity and untouched landscape. The ANWR is home to a caribou herd nearly 170,000 strong and other beasts including polar and grizzly bears, snow hares, mink and beavers. None of the revenue from Oil and Gas sales will go toward reserve restoration efforts.

The Coastal Plain is “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” the sacred place where life begins, to the native Gwich’in people. Both the Gwich’in and Inupuat people have depended on caribou and the land for food, clothing and resources to support their way of life. Gwich’in Elder Jonathon Soloman acknowledged his people’s connection to the land.

“It is our belief that the future of the Gwich’in and the future of the Caribou are the same.” Solomon said. “Harm to the Porcupine Caribou Herd is harm to the Gwich’in culture and millennia-old way of life.”

It seems, despite the 89 year difference, Robert Marshall’s word still ring true.

“There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth,” Marshall wrote. “That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”

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