A new rule announced on August 4, 2021 by the Biden administration will allow fossil fuel companies operating in northern Alaska to harass polar bears and walruses while searching or drilling for oil. (Photo: ekvals/Getty Images)

The Battle Over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Is About More Than Just Oil

Drilling in the Arctic Refuge would have devastating impacts on wildlife, beginning with caribou.

Seventy percent of Americans are opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and millions have made their voices heard through public administrative comments, and yet for the last four years our government has failed to listen. That could all soon change, however, as Congress and the Biden administration continue to work toward legislation--the Build Back Better Act--that would undo the Arctic Refuge oil and gas program and buy back all current leases. The time to permanently protect the Arctic Refuge is here, and it is clearer than ever that its fate will greatly impact our collective future.

If acting on climate change is a goal our government is serious about addressing, then keeping development out of the Arctic Refuge is the only option moving forward.

As the decades have passed, the debate surrounding development in the Arctic Refuge has become a symbol for something beyond simply oil drilling. A recent fact-finding trip to Alaska proved that this issue goes deeper than just a clash between environmentalists and the petroleum industry. Longtime writer, guide, teacher and advocate, Brennan Lagasse, invited Patagonia representative and journalist Brayden Stephenson and me to join him on a trip of a lifetime. We traveled up to Fairbanks, Alaska, and spent time with two of the leading voices in the Arctic Refuge fight: Robert Thompson, an Inupiat Elder from Kaktovik, and Sarah James, a Neets'aii Gwich'in Elder from Arctic Village.

"Oil corporations think if they can get the Arctic Refuge, they can get anything. The Refuge has become a symbol of the oil movement,"Robert told me when we first sat down. "The pro-oilers think that if they can make drilling happen in the Refuge they can drill anywhere. The Refuge would become an advantage point and a talking point for all of the other endeavors yet to come."

A brief history of the Arctic Refuge

Created in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a land in dispute for decades. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) expanded the Arctic Refuge to the 19.3 million acres it is today. ANILCA designated 8 million acres among the range as protected wilderness.

The area under debate is sometimes referred to as the 10-02 region because of section 1002 of ANILCA, which purposefully left this 1.5-million-acres region of the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain unprotected. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior: "Due to its unique purpose and potential, Congress did not include the 1002 area in the refuge's designated wilderness when ANILCA was enacted in 1980. Since then, no Congress has designated the 1002 area as wilderness."

The "unique potential" largely refers to oil and gas, and lots of it--the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic Refuge may hold between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of "technically recoverable" oil. Yet, as of 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management states that about 26 million acres of federal land are under lease nationally to oil and gas developers, with less than half of that acreage producing oil. There is not a consumer need to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, however, as you'll see below, there are countless reasons not to drill.

Sacred land

Drilling in the Arctic Refuge would have devastating impacts on wildlife, beginning with caribou. For the Indigenous Gwich'in people of Alaska and Canada, the coastal plain is "Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit" which translates to "the sacred place where life begins." The Porcupine caribou herd travels through Canada and Alaska to the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to give birth in late May and early June--the longest annual land migration on Earth--and the Gwich'in people depend on these caribou for food, clothing, and their cultural traditions. The word Gwich'in translates to "people of the caribou," and because of this connection, the Gwich'in consider the coastal plain to be sacred land.

"The idea is to teach the world to protect all birth places," Sarah James said. "Even where the ice is born, where the wind is born, and the water is born. Protect all the places that make everything work together."

In addition to the caribou, countless species of migratory birds travel to the coastal plain to have their young, and it serves as the most important denning grounds in Alaska for the threatened Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears.

"We're proud to be Gwich'in, we're proud to be caribou people," Sarah said. "We love our food. We love who we are. We're never going to give up on that."

Climate change threatens us all

There is no way to rationalize massive new fossil fuel projects, and this Summer's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests that the world may have even already reached a point of no return. "As a global community, it is imperative that we act quickly and together to confront this crisis," U.S Vice President Kamala Harris said at the recent Global Climate Summit. "This will require innovation and collaboration around the world. It will require the use of renewable energy and new technologies. And it will give each of our nations the opportunity to build healthier communities and stronger economies."

The devastating effects of climate change are surging across the planet destroying communities and generally wreaking havoc. From deadly heat waves in the western United States, fires destroying entire villages in Greece, severe flooding in China, and tropical hurricanes raging in the Gulf of Mexico, people are losing their homes, and too often, their lives. This is where over 100 years of oil consumption has gotten us.

"The bigger issue now is climate change,"Thompson said. "We've got to get clean energy. We know that climate change exists, and we just can't drill anywhere we want anymore. Why waste the Arctic Refuge forever when we don't need to?"

If drilling were to occur in the Arctic Refuge, the Center for American Progress says an average of more than 375,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be released each year during extraction alone--more than 26 million tons during the life of production--plus the burning of that oil would add another 4.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

If acting on climate change is a goal our government is serious about addressing, then keeping development out of the Arctic Refuge is the only option moving forward. By 2050, the planet must completely stop adding carbon into the atmosphere to survive. Opening a new oil frontier in Arctic Alaska is in direct opposition to that goal.

"When the fight first started, I just wanted to protect where I hunt,"Thompson said. "But no. It's for the whole future of the planet. It's that serious."

What happens now?

Under the previous administration, an Arctic Refuge lease sale was held on January 6, 2021, based on a highly flawed and possibly illegal environmental review process. The Biden administration has committed to pausing all development activities as it reviews that process, and as a presidential candidate, Joe Biden committed to making sure no drilling would ever take place on the coastal plain. However, according to a recent report in The Hill, the Biden Interior Department will also consider possible alternatives such as "declaring some areas of the coastal plain off-limits to leasing, banning surface infrastructure in 'sensitive areas' and barring more than 2,000 acres of surface development across the coastal plain."

One reason for the hedging is that, to a certain extent, the administration's hands are tied. The Arctic Refuge oil program was passed into law as part of the 2017 Tax Act, which means that the administration is mandated by law to hold another lease sale. That highlights the importance of repealing the entire program in Congress, a process currently being sought through budget reconciliation. That's why we all need to contact our members of Congress, especially in the Senate, and remind them that reconciliation is their best opportunity to legislatively restore protections for the Arctic Refuge.

"This is as close as we've been to having anything protected,"Thompson said. "I mean there's times where we almost lost the fight, but right now the potential for the protection is right there."

Let's get it done.

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