Will the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Become Another of Trump’s Forgotten Victims? - by Charles King
Last September congress passed a massive omnibus tax bill, fulfilling President Trump’s campaign promises to cut taxes and stimulate economic growth. But a tax overhaul wasn’t the only feature of this controversial legislation. Republicans seized the opportunity to repeal the individual mandate included in the Affordable Care Act, an achievement they were unable to realize earlier this year. Perhaps the least discussed aspect of the bill however has nothing to do with tax or healthcare reform but rather the single largest expanse of wildlife refuge in the country. Per the request of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who has been a forceful advocate for drilling in the state, a provision was snuck in that opened part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to natural resource exploration. While this topic is extremely polarizing, it has plagued congress for decades and provided the fuel for one of the longest running environmental debates to date.
The ANWR, an area that spans 19 million acres in Alaska’s Northeast corner, originally received federally protected status from the Department of the Interior in 1960. Scientists had spent a recent summer exploring the delicate ecosystems that traverse the territory, and their determination that any path other than total preservation risked precipitating irreversible damages compelled the government to act. These protections were revisited in 1980 when congress passed the Alaska Natural Interest Lands Conservation Act, and while safeguards were continued for the majority of the land (18 million acres) section 1002 of the legislation, after which the contested land is nicknamed, authorized natural resource research in a 1.5 million acre pocket. With oil and natural gas prospects in the area still unverified, section 1002 also left to future congresses the decision to legalize drilling in the sanctioned portion of the refuge.
Thus the dispute began. In one camp were those who believed that the potential environmental costs decisively outweighed any benefits. In the opposition camp however, were proponents of Arctic drilling who hailed the economic opportunity that potentially lay beneath the icy tundra. Despite public sentiment traditionally siding with the former, past efforts to legalize drilling in the North Slope (the name of the northeastern coastal plain making up most of the disputed territory) have come close to succeeding. In 1989 congress was on the verge of drilling when the Exxon-Valdez oil spill galvanized concerned Americans. Then in 1995 President Clinton successfully thwarted another congressional attempt to open the North Slope. Finally, as recently as 2005, a democratic filibuster managed to keep rigs and drilling infrastructure from being introduced into the region.
All of this is to say that the topic of arctic drilling has grown increasingly contentious. The Trump administration and republican-controlled congress obviously sided with drilling proponents, and thus this impassioned contest culminated in the rather underwhelming passage of a drilling law included as part of the larger tax rewrite. Debt reduction and enhanced domestic energy production are consistently cited as the primary factors motivating this initiative. This begs the question, is one side more justified? A brief look at the competing perspectives provides some insight.
Senator Murkowski, the Trump administration and other proponents of resource extraction have argued that this area has massive economic potential and that drilling will generate revenue via two streams. Specifically, they contend that leasing the 800,000 acres of available land will generate upwards of $2 billion dollars and that roughly $10 billion worth of oil and natural gas will be extracted over the first decade of operations. Considering that the state of Alaska and federal government have agreed to split these profits down the middle, both sides stand to benefit tremendously should the aforementioned projections prove accurate. However, as many experts have noted, they are based on rather optimistic estimates.
For example, in order for Alaskan state and U.S. federal coffers to reap the $1.1 billion in leases, the property would have to fetch nearly $2800/acre, an amount well above the meager offers that similar plots have attracted. Furthermore, in order to generate profits at a rate of $1 billion/year, not only will the price of oil need to rise from its current level of $60/barrel to $78/barrel, but prospective reserves must also yield 7 billion barrels. U.S. Geological Surveys, while outdated and imprecise, indicate that anywhere from 4-11 billion barrels of oil may lie beneath section 1002. While the 7 billion barrel target is slightly below the mean USGS estimate, predicting oil and gas levels is a challenging process that often leaves a wide margin for error. Furthermore, while results from the single core sample taken from the North Slope have remained classified, individuals familiar with the process expressed skepticism. And a sample taken from the Beaufort Sea off the coast of the North Slope, just beyond the boundaries of section 1002, produced rather disappointing results.
Yet, the indigenous groups who own shares in the companies that own the land in question have expressed overwhelming support for drilling. This is not surprising considering that Alaska’s budget, consisting largely of property taxes on the corporations operating in the area, has been steadily declining. These people are further encouraged by the discovery of the largest oil reserve in the U.S. at Prudhoe Bay in the 1960s, a mere 60 miles west of the ANWR. Indeed, hopes for a massive injection of wealth and the improvements it would precede are understandably enticing. Thus, despite the dubious assessments of natural resource prospects in section 1002, a majority of indigenous peoples and the corporations that represent them support Senator Murkowski’s plan. The possibility of funding any number of infrastructure projects, augmenting the state budget and providing some much needed stimulation to the struggling region is convincing, as is the potential for the federal government to begin ameliorating its trillion dollar debt.
On the other side of this debate are individuals worried about detrimental environmental effects. One only has to consider the myriad oil spills that have devastated swathes of U.S. terrain to appreciate these sentiments. The ANWR includes one of the most diverse and dynamic habitats in the country and is home to tens of thousands of various plant and animal species. Of particular concern is the Porcupine Caribou heard, which uses section 1002 as its calving ground. Indeed, studies on these animals suggest that they are particularly sensitive to disruptive activity and that, when forced out of this largely shielded enclave, mortality rates spike.
In a similar vein, the indigenous Gwich’in people claim an ancient spiritual connection to the Porcupine heard and even refer to the North Slope as ‘the sacred place where life begins’. They consider this land to be so sacred, in fact, that they refuse to step foot there. In this sense, not only does drilling risk disrupting the North Slope’s sensitive ecosystems, it would also violate the values, traditions and livelihood of peoples who have existed in the region for centuries.
Finally, examinations of past drilling endeavors reveal that the footprints of these massive operations last well beyond closure. Especially in an area as isolated and perilous as northern Alaska, the likelihood of oil companies undergoing the expensive and laborious process of removing equipment is small. In the case that equipment is disassembled and removed, the period of time needed for surrounding areas to recover from the sustained human activity is lengthy. And should drilling safeguards fail and trigger an oil spill, the consequences would be devastating. The damage to wildlife, vegetation and surrounding water would be unconscionable, and the landscape would be adversely altered for decades.
Thus, despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, both of these sides believe they are arguing from a moral and logical position. Proponents of ANWR drilling view it as an economic opportunity with the potential to improve countless lives, but opponents perceive it as an unnecessary endeavor with unacceptable risks. While economic self-determination and the chance for self-improvement are prerogatives upon which the American dream is built, providing protection to something as defenseless, vulnerable and finite as the environment is necessary for a sustainable future. This issue is a troublesome one with no easy solution, and the implications of this momentous decision can only come in time.