Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Faces Oil Drilling Threat

For the past 30 years, extensive conservation efforts have protected the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas interests. Now, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) under the Trump administration has renewed a movement to open up the refuge to energy exploration. In a document obtained by the Washington Post on September 15, the DOI urges the Trump administration to implement a draft rule that would strike a 1980s provision that prevents seismic exploration in the Alaska refuge. Seismic studies represent a necessary ground step for Arctic drilling and have been halted due to their impacts on local wildlife, including denning polar bears.

Established in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans more than 19 million acres, stretching from the coast to the glacier summits, and is one of the last intact landscapes in America. The refuge is home to the Brooks Range, which has peaks and glaciers up to 9,000 feet, and mountains that span 75 miles from east to west. In addition, there are around 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species and more than 200 migratory bird species that reside in the refuge. With its abundance of biodiversity, the refuge is considered one of the most fragile and ecologically sensitive ecosystems in the world.

Pamela A. Miller, an Alaskan conservationist and former Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, told GlacierHub, “Opening a protected wildlife refuge to the oil and gas industry would continue Alaska and the nation on the fossil fuel course which is not sustainable in the face of adding a new source of global warming pollution – at a time when Alaska is already warming at a rate two times the rest of the nation. The Arctic Refuge today as a protected landscape provides resilience and safety for wildlife in the face of climate change which is transforming their habitats – and on top of that there is massive industrialization continuing to grow across America’s Arctic.”

A polar bear and its young in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

When asked about the effects of climate change and drilling on the refuge, Neil Lawrence, the Alaska director to the Natural Resource Defense Council, added, “Climate change has softened permafrost, made tundra more vulnerable, greatly stressed coastal species dependent on ice, and overall made the flora, fauna, and geology of the refuge more vulnerable to any disturbance, including seismic and drilling.” With temperatures rising, glaciers like the McCall Glacier and other alpine glaciers in the Brooks Range have already receded at astonishing rates over the past half-century. If these rates continue, the Brooks Range glaciers will vanish in 80 to 100 years.  

Oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and seismic imaging studies could further negatively impact the Arctic ecosystems by disrupting the wildlife areas and the habits of species such as polar bears and muskoxen. “Scoping for oil includes seismic testing that is done by convoys of 30-ton trucks equipped with massive off-road tires, traversing large portions of the landscape, crushing sensitive plants and soils, impacting disturbance-averse wildlife, and leaving tracks that scar the land for decades,” Lawrence explained to GlacierHub. Climate change effects have already taken a toll on the summer sea ice, leaving many polar bears without a home.  

Caribou graze on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

Despite its negative environmental effects, oil drilling presents financial incentives for the state of Alaska. Oil is currently trading around $50 a barrel. If developers were to reach the 27 billion barrels of oil believed to be in the U.S.-controlled portion of the Arctic, Alaskans would no doubt reap financial rewards. For this reason, Alaskan politicians like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) support oil exploration which would increase the annual dividend each Alaska resident receives.

The newly proposed draft rule must first go through a period of public comments and pass other bureaucratic agencies, which could take around 18 months, before companies could place bids to start the exploration. Any approval to the memorandum would likely incite political debate and clashes between the administration and environmental groups who aim to protect the area’s biodiversity and glacial mountains.

In addition to this new draft proposal, the DOI under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has further urged President Trump to modify 10 national monuments, calling for the reduction of the boundaries of four of these sites. There is a lack of historical precedent for presidents to reduce the site boundaries of national monuments. For the time being, none of the national protected areas containing glaciers are being threatened with reductions in area. Perhaps the high mountains are so deeply appreciated by the American people that such a move would seem imprudent. Nonetheless, the threats to the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge and the national monuments show the importance of vigilance for our nation’s wild and natural spaces, including glaciers.

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