The Arctic is the latest victim of the outgoing president’s post-defeat tantrum, as the Trump administration takes steps to advance oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska office is set to publish request for nominations on the refuge’s coastal plain, letting fossil fuel companies suggest which pieces of the protected land should be auctioned off for extraction. This will bring the Trump administration one major step closer to locking in drilling leases before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The move comes three months after the Department of the Interior finalized the approval process for drilling on the pristine plain, opening nearly 1.6 million acres of land up to the oil and gas industry for the first time. At the time, the agency said it aimed to sell off the leases by the end of 2020. Doing so spells disaster for Indigenous communities and wildlife. The threatened Porcupine caribou, for instance, use the region as a birthing ground, and the Gwich’in Nation, who live nearby and consider the plain sacred, rely on the caribou for food and cultural practices.
“Our food security, our land, and our way of life is on the verge of being destroyed,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a statement. “Handing up this very sacred area to oil companies is a violation of our human rights.”
The area is also home to the last 900 Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears in the world, that will be put at risk by the oil and gas machinery. And of course, selling off oil leases lays the groundwork for even more climate-warming fossil fuels to be extracted and used.
“Trump is trying to lock in climate chaos and the extinction of polar bears and other endangered Arctic species on his way out the door,” Kristen Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email. “This is unconscionable. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can’t be replaced, so we can’t let this lame-duck president give it away to Big Oil.”
Though the lease sale would make it possible for oil and gas drilling, it’s not clear if the industry will actually bite. Due to the unprecedented crash in fuel demand spurred by covid-19 lockdowns, the oil market isn’t exactly thriving right now. Companies have also faced enormous public pressure to halt Arctic exploration. Nearly all major banks have halted funding for such projects, and the one big exception, Bank of America, is being pushed hard by climate organizers to do the same. The climate movement is also pushing insurance companies and asset managers to quit supporting fossil fuel companies in their Arctic drilling endeavors.
Despite that, some companies, especially smaller ones who haven’t faced the onslaught of public pressure that oil majors have, might still gobble the leases up. In fact, a proposed seismic exploration project to find the oil in the area is already under environmental review by the U.S.
“In addition to disturbing denning polar bears, it would involve heavy equipment driven over uncertain snow coverage and dragging mobile camps for 180 people as their work moves across one of the wildest and most ecologically and culturally significant undeveloped landscapes in North America,” Tim Woody, The Wilderness Society’s regional communications manager for Alaska, said in an emailed statement about that seismic project.
If the lease sale happens, President-elect Biden could undo the damage once he takes office. The Department of the Interior’s environmental analysis of the effects of opening the plain, Monsell said, is “woefully inadequate and fails to comply with the agency’s legal obligations.” By making this case, Biden’s Interior Department could roll the leases back.
A coalition of organizations focused on Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and climate action—including the Center for Biological Diversity—have also promised to take “any company that is foolish enough to participate in this sham process” to court.
“We’ll keep fighting to ensure the Arctic Refuge stays off limits to the oil industry,” Monsell said.