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Caribou in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Caribou in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (Photo: Bob Wick, BLM)

'Incredibly Reckless': Trump Moves to Expand Fossil Fuel Drilling in Alaska's Western Arctic Region

"At a time when oil prices are cratering, prioritizing expanding oil and gas drilling anywhere—let alone the Arctic—is ridiculous."

Andrea Germanos

The Trump administration was lambasted Thursday for a proposal to open up most of Alaska's Western Arctic reserve for fossil fuel drilling—a move conservation groups say would be a "disaster" for the climate and wildlife as well as the rights and well-being of Indigenous communities.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released the "preferred plan" for the area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Thursday. The final "integrated activity plan," federal officials wrote, would open to leasing roughly 18.6 million acres, representing 82% of the reserve. That's a larger area than four other proposals from BLM which faced public comment and includes areas Obama administration had previously protected from drilling.

"Opening more of the Arctic to drilling and fracking is incredibly reckless," said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "All Arctic oil should stay in the ground," she said. 

BLM, in a statement, framed the plan as helping to fulfill President Donald "Trump's direction for increased production of American energy resources." It would make all of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and parts of the Utukok River Uplands Special Area available for leasing.

"The area is home to two caribou herds, grizzly bears, wolves, and loons," CNN reported, adding, "Tens of thousands of geese visit the area annually for molting." The area is also home to communities who depend up on that wildlife.  

The final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) outlines expected impacts if the plan is finalized and oil and gas development are pursued:

•Potential impacts on subsistence users, both from impacts on subsistence species and from direct disturbance of hunts, displacement of resources from traditional harvest areas, and hunter avoidance of industrialized areas

•Impacts on water quality, hydrology, and level caused by water extraction and construction of ice roads and pads, gravel mining, dust, and wastewater discharges from a central processing facility

•Impacts from routine activities on air quality due to release of pollutants

•Greenhouse gas emissions from exploration and development and downstream consumption of oil

•Potential impacts on birds from predators, increased human presence, and loss of habitat

•Potential impacts on fish and aquatic species from road and pads development, bridge and culvert construction, and gravel dust and spray

•Potential impacts on marine mammals, including human-polar bear interactions; vehicle, aircraft, and boat traffic and noise disturbance; and accidental, unplanned take by vessel strikes or oil spills

•Impacts on terrestrial mammals, including disturbance from vehicle and aircraft noise, human presence, and habitat fragmentation and loss

•Disturbance and loss of permafrost, vegetation, and wetlands

•Potential impacts on state employment, labor income, and revenues

•Potential impacts on North Slope Borough employment, income, revenue, and socioeconomics

•Potential impacts on cultural resources by lease development•Visual impacts from infrastructure and artificial light

•Noise impacts from development and production activities

"Most sociocultural effects would affect communities in the NPR-A—Atqasuk, Nuiqsut, Utqiagvik, and Wainwright, in a planning area-wide context; nevertheless,a number of sociocultural effects could extend beyond the NPR-A to other North Slope communities (Point LayandAnaktuvuk Pass) or, in some instances, to subsistence users from other regions (i.e., regional context)," the agency added.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, burning the oil estimated to be recoverable in the area would unleash more than 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution.

In a joint statement (pdf), conservation and Indigenous groups including Alaska Wilderness league, Defenders of Wildlife, and Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic sharply criticized the proposal, saying, in part:

The rivers, wildlife, and landscapes, including the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and the Colville/Kuukpik River, are invaluable to Alaskans and to people around the world, and this plan weakens or completely removes protections informed by years of study and understanding of the complex Arctic ecosystem. The agency has repeatedly downplayed the role of fossil fuel extraction in climate change, irresponsibly compounding the threats on Arctic lands already warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

The Center's Monsell, in her statement, added, "Turning the oil industry loose on America's biggest undeveloped frontier would be a disaster for our climate and Alaska's wildlife."

"Drilling oil and gas wells in the Western Arctic would do immense harm to Arctic wildlife already under siege from the climate crisis," she said. "We can't let that happen."

Earthjustice attorney Rebecca Noblin also vowed to push back against the proposal.

"The Trump administration plan to expand drilling in the Western Arctic ignores the reality of climate change, and tramples the health and well-being of Alaska Native communities whose traditional foods and cultural practices are inextricably woven into the intact Arctic landscape. At a time when oil prices are cratering, prioritizing expanding oil and gas drilling anywhere—let alone the Arctic—is ridiculous," said Noblin.

"Earthjustice has gone to court on multiple occasions to defend the Western Arctic," she said, "and we will continue to do everything in our power to defend and increase protections for this unique and irreplaceable landscape."

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