The Trump administration is moving swiftly to drill in the pristine coastal regions of the Arctic Refuge, home to polar bears, caribou, grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, muskoxen and more than 130 species of migratory birds, despite the fact that a majority of Americans want to keep this unique ecosystem pristine.
In October, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management gave the go-ahead to allow Hilcorp to build a nine-acre gravel island off the coast of shallow Beufort Sea to tap oil reserves. The site –which is within 60 miles of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — would be the first oil and gas production facility in federal waters.
The Refuge consists of more than 19 million acres of wild lands and was first set aside for protection in 1960. But last year, in a move to obtain support for the Republican tax measure from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a deal to include a provision that opens the 1.6 million- acre coastal plain region in the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas exploration.
The drilling poses a threat to already threatened wildlife in the area and disregards the serious biological and climate impacts fossil fuel extraction will have on the rapidly warming Arctic.
The Bureau of Land Management had received more than 700,000 public comments in opposition to development. Additionally, a recent Yale Climate Connection poll found that 70 percent of American voters, including a majority of Republicans, oppose drilling. Yet, the administration, in bed with energy interests, is barreling ahead with plans to lease the area to drilling.
Oilfield services company SAExploration, Inc. is seeking to conduct dangerous three-dimensional seismic exploration across the entire coastal plain region that could begin as soon as December.
Seismic exploration would require a small army of industrial vehicles and equipment to crisscross every square inch of the Refuge’s biological heart, putting denning polar bears at risk and leave lasting scars on the fragile tundra and its vegetation.
The oil exploration would occur in critical habitat for the threatened Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear in the middle of polar bear denning season. The coastal plain is one of the most important onshore denning areas for polar bears in the U.S., more so now than ever as sea ice continues to recede. The seismic testing could frighten mother bears from their dens, leaving cubs to perish and contribute to further species decline.
Meanwhile, the Arctic is ground zero for climate change and drilling for fossil fuels that contribute to global warming makes absolutely no sense. Villages in the Arctic are already eroding into the sea. Arctic permafrost is melting and shrinking sea ice has resulted in polar bears becoming increasingly dependent on the Refuge’s on-shore habitat.
The newly elected House of Representatives should move quickly to restore protections for the national treasure that is the Arctic Refuge. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should continue to oppose any efforts to disrupt this pristine ecosystem, one of the few truly wild lands left in the U.S. and support the Arctic Cultural Coastal Plain Protection Act –HR 5911 – proposed by Rep. Jared Huffman of California. The Act would restore protections that had been in place for more than a century, and which have been supported by the Connecticut delegation to Congress over the decades, to safeguard the Refuge’s biological diversity.
We must send a message to an administration that panders to commercial interests at every turn that our environment and wildlife are not for sale.
Pricilla Feral is President of Friends of Animals, and Adam Kolton, Executive Director of the Alaska Wilderness League.