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Congress and ex-lobbyists at the Interior lay the ground for oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge

January 2, 2019 1 2 No Comments

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In the days leading up to Christmas, Trump’s Interior Department took the next step in its latest plans to open up the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to drilling. The department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its environmental impact study in a fast-tracked effort to begin production in a region that has remained untouched for decades.

The report puts the administration on track to opening up oil exploration in the area this year, in response to a mandate by Congress inserted into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. To be clear, that mandate was arbitrarily inserted into the end of the bill, having nothing to do with the content of Congress’s tax reform. It reads: “The Secretary shall establish and administer a competitive oil and gas program for the leasing, development, production, and transportation of oil and gas in and from the Coastal Plain,” referring to the region of the ANWR of most interest to prospectors. It also directs the interior secretary to “conduct not fewer than two lease sales” within the next ten years.

With the president already halfway through his term and the Democrats assuming control of Congress, timing is everything for industry players looking to take advantage of an administration with a unique disregard for global climate change concerns. Under the guidance of department chief Ryan Zinke, the Interior has been at the fore of accommodating these corporate interests by rolling back long-standing environmental regulations around the country. Zinke, who recently announced his resignation amid a series of ethics investigations, will be replaced for the foreseeable future by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a lobbyist whose innumerable ties to the energy, mining, and water resources industries far surpass even those of his embattled boss.

Opening up the region to oil exploration would fly in the face of a widely-cited report last year by the U.S. Geological Survey, which found that approximately one fourth of all carbon emissions in the country were caused by drilling on public lands. Oil and gas producers eager to win these contracts believe that beneath the refuge lies the largest deposit of untapped oil on the continent, a belief that can be traced back to the discovery of petroleum reserves 50 years ago in a nearby Alaskan region.

“I feel like there is a lot of expectations, hopes and dreams from people who I know and love that are riding on this,” said Joe Balash, who was appointed Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management last year on the recommendation of Zinke. Following his confirmation, Balash said that the U.S. was “blessed with tremendous public lands and resources that give our people unparalleled opportunities for recreation and job creation for generations to come,” and reassured the public of his commitment to “seizing” those opportunities for the sake of Trump’s America First Energy Plan.

The Land Bureau’s study acknowledges the various risks and guarantees of environmental degradation — and the threat that it poses towards human beings — of the project. The most immediate human impact would be on local, isolated Native American communities in the region, which function generally as mixed economies that rely heavily on fishing and hunting game and migratory birds surviving on the protected lands, and other forms of subsistence. The effects of future oil and gas production in the area, the report acknowledges, will be widespread: bird migration will be interrupted, fish habitats destroyed, and perhaps most importantly the heavily-relied on Porcupine caribou herds will be impacted — many their calving grounds will be destroyed and their population likely sent into decline.

“Because of this, communities could experience a loss of cultural and individual identity associated with subsistence, a loss of traditional knowledge about the land, damaged social and kinship ties, and effects on spirituality associated with degradation of the Alaska coastal plain,” the study reads. “These are key concerns that were reported by the Inupiaq and Gwich’in people during public scoping meetings associated with the oil and gas leasing program.”

Outlined in the report are four alternative leasing options. The first, no leasing, is described as a baseline used to measure the impacts of the other three, which itself, as the report describes, does not meet Congress’s mandate. The other three differ primarily by degree, and are presented as the possible answers to the question of how much of the 1.5 million acres under consideration on the Coastal Plains should be designated for leasing. The next steps in the process are the release of a final environmental report and the Interior Department’s choosing of one of these alternatives. That is expected to take place in 2019.

The report was praised by conservatives in Congress, particularly by Alaska Republicans whose state stands to receive royalties on the oil and gas leases. “I appreciate the extensive time and attention the Department has dedicated to gather and consider feedback from all Alaskans, particularly the Inupiat and other stakeholders in the Alaska Native community,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski, ignoring the conclusions in the report quoted above, went on to say that the study would “ensure we build a strong leasing program that helps us realize our tremendous energy potential without harming our environment or way of life.” Murkowski herself was one of the co-authors of the section in the 2017 tax bill ordering the project’s undertaking.

The report did, however, inspire an unusual break from party lines in Congress: a group of Republican senators sent a letter to Secretary Zinke stating their unhappiness with the proposed plans. “We have reservations about any effort to develop this pristine landscape and oppose the circumstances under which this controversial environmental issue was authorized last year, attached to an unrelated tax reconciliation bill.” The authors expressed concern for the survival of wildlife, the vulnerability of locals like the Gwich’in, and the sanctity of the Coastal Plains and the ANWR at large, the “crown jewel” of the country’s National Wildlife Refuge System. They did not, however, list the project’s potential effects on climate change as a cause for concern.

From the outset, criticism of the project has been widespread. During an earlier period of public input, some 700,000 letters of opposition and other such comments were submitted for review. The Wilderness Society released its own report at the same time, charging the Trump administration with using “fake economics” and “bogus data” to overstate the benefits of drilling and push through the project. According to the provision in the tax bill, Alaska and the federal government will split the proceeds from the leases.

“This is a land grab, pure and simple, and the individuals responsible care little about impacts to wildlife or the damage they would be inflicting on Alaska Native people whose subsistence depends on the Arctic Refuge,” said Adam Kolton, the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. Kolton’s organization argues that the surveys have demonstrated the widespread public opposition to the government’s plans.

The Alaska governor, Mike Dunleavy, unsurprisingly praised the report after meeting with Murkowski and other members of the Alaska Congressional Delegation. “This is a significant milestone in AK’s long journey to responsibly explore and develop the ANWR 1002 area,” he said. “The potential oil discovery will spur new jobs and investments for generations to come.”

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