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Gwich'in Arctic defenders pose outside the U.S. Capitol on May 20, 2022 in Washington, D.C., where the Indigenous activists met with members of Congress and the Biden administration. (Photo: Sierra Club/Twitter)

Codify Arctic Refuge Protections, Say Campaigners Amid Big Oil Exodus

"We support Congress and the Biden administration taking long-overdue action to... reestablish protections for this crown jewel of our national wildlife refuge system," said one activist.

Brett Wilkins

Conservationists and climate campaigners on Thursday welcomed the news that another fossil fuel company has canceled a controversial Trump-era lease to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while calling on policymakers to permanently protect the pristine wilderness from future threats.

"As oil companies terminate and cancel leases, it's time for Congress to stop the leasing program for good."

According to the Anchorage Daily News, Regenerate Alaska, a subsidiary of Australia-based 88 Energy, joined Hilcorp and Chevron—which earlier this week terminated pre-existing leases inside the ANWR—in canceling its lease. Major banks and insurers have also stopped financing and covering Arctic fossil fuel projects. 

"These exits clearly demonstrate that international companies recognize what we have known all along," said the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a group of Arctic defenders from the country's northernmost Indigenous people.

"Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is not worth the economic risk and liability that results from development on sacred lands without the consent of Indigenous peoples," the committee added.

Regenerate Alaska, the only company to directly acquire land in the 19.3 million-acre refuge, bid about $800,000 to lease 23,000 acres along the reserve's western boundary during the January 2021 lease sale.

However, the Biden administration last year blocked new exploration inside ANWR, while subsequently ordering a review of its predecessor's controversial move to open up the previously protected refuge to fossil fuel extraction as part of its national energy independence policy.

"This is positive news for the climate and the human rights of Indigenous people whose survival depends on a healthy, thriving calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, and further proves that the oil industry recognizes drilling on sacred lands is bad business," Karlin Itchoak, the Alaska state director at the Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

Peter Winsor, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement that "88 Energy canceling its lease interest on the heels of Chevron and Hilcorp divesting themselves of their own Arctic Refuge holdings is the clearest sign yet that there is zero interest out there in industrializing the wildest place left in America. We have long known that the American people don't want drilling in the Arctic Refuge."

The Gwich'in call the area "Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit"—or "the sacred place where life begins"—and rely on the region's rich biodiversity, especially its 200,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd, for their survival.

Around 270 species call the refuge home, including all of the world's remaining South Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen, Arctic foxes, and hundreds of thousands of snow geese and other birds which fly there from all 50 states and around the world.

The Republican-controlled Congress approved drilling in the massive, pristine ANWR in 2017. In what was called a parting gift to the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration in its final weeks held the lease auction that raised only $14.4 million and drew no bids from major fossil fuel corporations.

"The 2021 oil and gas lease sale for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was an epic failure, generating less than 1% of the revenue outlined in the 2017 Tax Act," Winsor noted. 

Referring to ANWR drilling, he added that "the Gwich'in people don't want it, and we now have further proof that the oil industry doesn't want it either."

"Companies are already pulling out of their leases—let's permanently protect this land."

"Congress opened the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling in 2017 backed by the ridiculous promise of industry enthusiasm leading to billions in federal revenue from lease sales," Winsor added. "That promise continues to be exposed for the lie that was and we support Congress and the Biden administration taking long-overdue action to restore fiscal common sense and reestablish protections for this crown jewel of our national wildlife refuge system."

Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director at Environment America, said in a statement that "oil companies, including 88 Energy, Chevron, and Hilcorp, have recognized that there is no future for fossil fuel extraction in this sensitive environment. As oil companies terminate and cancel leases, it's time for Congress to stop the leasing program for good."

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined the conservationists' calls to codify ANWR protections.

"Drilling in the Arctic Refuge poses huge risks to the Gwich'in, to threatened Arctic ecosystems, and to our climate. It's all risk, no reward," he tweeted Thursday. "Companies are already pulling out of their leases—let's permanently protect this land."

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