The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of public land in Alaska the size of South Carolina, is one of the last untouched landscapes in the world. The native Gwich’in people — who have lived in harmony with the area’s migratory Porcupine caribou herd for centuries — call the refuge’s vast coastal plain Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
But in the past few years, the fate of the refuge’s roughly 19.5 million acres has become rather bleak: Its permafrost is melting rapidly, along with the rest of the Arctic region. The refuge’s coastal plain also remains at risk to oil and gas development, which companies have long had their eye on but have been barred from doing — until now.
Drilling in the US Arctic is what President Trump has longed to do, in hopes of making the US the No. 1 energy producer in the world. And in early December, the administration made a stunning, last-ditch announcement that it will auction off drilling rights in the refuge on January 6 — two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. It’s the administration’s final attempt to turn a profit on Indigenous lands with little regard for the environmental or cultural ramifications.
Oil and gas exploration in the coastal plain would not only further fuel the planet’s already warming temperatures, but it would also drive away species like the caribou as well as polar bears and bowhead whales, and severely impact the quality of water that many animals and Alaska Natives rely on.
Trump’s window to sell drilling rights in the refuge is closing fast — and climate activists are not making it easy. In the past few years, they have successfully put pressure on corporations that typically finance the fossil fuel industry not to fund drilling in the Arctic. Last week, Bank of America became the latest major bank to join the growing list of financial institutions — including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Goldman Sachs — that pledged not to fund any fossil fuel operations in the Arctic refuge, putting a roadblock in Big Oil’s finances to bid in the auction.
Environmental, conservation, and Indigenous groups such as the Gwich’in Steering Committee have also filed lawsuits challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) environmental reviews of opening the coastal plain, which clearly details that drilling could pose irreversible damage to the climate, Arctic biodiversity, and Alaska Native tribes.
Drilling in the Arctic isn’t what voters want, either. A new poll from the progressive think tank Data for Progress released this week shows that 53 percent of national voters oppose the administration’s proposal to rush approval of oil and gas leases in the Arctic, while 37 percent support the plan.
“Trump isn’t even pretending to care what the public thinks about giving the Arctic refuge to Big Oil,” Kristen Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Vox. “Rushing through these leases is incredibly reckless and violates federal law. We’re counting on the Biden administration and the courts to protect polar bears and our climate where Trump wouldn’t.”
The stakes of drilling in ANWR are high for Alaska Natives and the environment
The coastal plain, which represents about 8 percent of the Arctic refuge, is said to hold billions of barrels of oil — which oil and gas companies have coveted for decades.
In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to protect its vast and biologically rich ecosystem. Although Congress expanded the original scope of the refuge in 1980 to include more wildlife habitat, they also set aside the coastal plain to allow future oil and gas development.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton vetoed a budget bill that would have sacrificed the land to drilling. But in 2017, the Trump administration’s tax bill, approved by a Republican-led Congress, mandated that not one, but two lease sales be held in the refuge’s coastal plain to create revenue for the federal budget within seven years, the first of which must be no later than the end of 2021.
For centuries, the Arctic refuge — particularly the coastal plain — has been central to Alaska Natives’ way of life. The ancestral name of the plain refers to the calving grounds for the caribou, whose migratory path still guides the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people today. If oil drilling rights in the sacred land are sold, Alaskan Natives fear it would disrupt the caribou’s migratory patterns along with other wildlife. It would also interrupt the way the Gwich’in people prepare for sacred harvest as their ancestors have thousands of years ago.
“This is not just a Gwich’in issue; there are a lot of Alaska Natives who depend on the caribou and the animals that migrate there,” Bernadette Demientieff, a Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in and the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told Vox. “Our identity as Gwich’in is not up for negotiation and our culture is not up for sale. We will fight this every step of the way.”
Already, the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline on the west end of the national refuge, which has had multiple hazardous oil spills in the region, provides a stark reminder of the fossil fuel industry’s menacing presence on Indigenous lands. Fossil fuel operations emit tons of greenhouse gases that contribute to the planet’s warming temperatures. And to do so on Indigenous lands in the Arctic — already dubbed ground zero for the climate crisis — only adds insult to injury for communities most vulnerable to climate change, like the Gwich’in people.
“There’s an insightful irony in the fact that it’s a land grab and that it is financing at least partially a tax break for billionaires and corporations,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy for Data for Progress, and a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, both First Nation groups in Canada’s British Columbia. “Because the truth is that Indigenous land grabs have always financed part of the economic development of this country.”
Even the BLM’s environmental impact statement of the sale, which it published in August as required by law before any development projects, downplayed the effects oil drilling would have on permafrost dynamics (permafrost stores an atmosphere’s worth of carbon and protects against coastal erosion), which, according to scientific research, could actually degrade faster in the event of any oil and gas development.
But the environmental review did note that “human-caused disturbance” during the drilling activities, such as road construction, loud machinery, and seismic blasts, would not only worsen air and water quality but also lead to wildlife habitat destruction and sever access to hunting and recreation for Alaska’s Indigenous people.
“It makes clear the ongoing histories of expropriation and extraction that undergird, to this day, a great deal of the United States economy and the global economy,” NoiseCat said. “So in that regard, it’s a revealing episode about this country’s relationship to its First Peoples and lands and resources.”
The Trump administration’s decision to hold an auction next month also poses an obstacle for oil and gas companies: In November, weeks after Trump lost a second term, the BLM launched a “call for nominations” for the Arctic lease sale, which is meant to open a 30-day window for fossil fuel companies to bid on which pieces of land they want. But the BLM, most likely due to time constraints during the lame-duck period, did not wait 30 days and instead scheduled a sale date. Now companies have less time to prepare their bids than they usually do.
Aside from the limited time window, there’s also a possibility that no one will show up with a bid. The Covid-19 pandemic hit the industry hard, causing oil prices to plunge, and it may be difficult for companies to come up with a huge sum of money that would sustain expensive oil exploration in the Arctic.
The country’s largest banks, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, and most recently, Bank of America, have all committed to no longer supporting Arctic oil drilling projects due to increasing pressure from environmental groups. The Gwich’in Steering Committee and other environmental and Indigenous organizations also sent a letter last week to international insurance companies demanding that they pledge not to invest in oil and gas development projects in the Arctic.
“This fight is far from over,” said Demientieff. “They will not get their hands on our sacred lands.”
On the road to a Biden administration
Trump’s last-minute efforts to push the lease sale of the Arctic’s coastal plain raises major concerns and anxieties among environmentalists and Alaska’s Indigenous community. Still, there are some Alaska Natives, especially in the community of Kaktovik, who believe there will be economic benefits in developing the area. Kaktovik’s Indigenous Iñupiat have always looked to generate profit for their village, due to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 that restructured Alaska Native tribes to be corporations and shareholders.
“In many parts of Alaska, these extractive industries are really the only financially viable path towards economic development,” NoiseCat said. “Revenues from these things build the roads, pay for schools, pay for hospitals, create jobs and opportunities and all that. So it’s quite understandable that in parts of country where there aren’t a ton of options economically that people will take the opportunities in front of them.”
For years, Republican lawmakers have tried to leverage that narrative, saying that opposing oil and gas operations is a form of discrimination against marginalized communities because it deprives them of economic benefits. In a letter to the Federal Reserve in June, for instance, Alaska’s Republican congressional members, including Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, asked federal regulators to investigate whether the slew of banks denying funding Arctic oil and gas projects presents discrimination against Alaska Natives.
Indigenous organizers and environmental activists later blasted the all-white congressional delegation for promoting a misleading narrative, especially during a pandemic that’s disproportionately impacting the lives of Native Americans.
“As Congress has been incredibly slow to get cash and aid to families at the same time as President Trump has yet to take the actions to address the spread of the virus, he still somehow has time to have his administration open up one of the most pristine landscapes in the country to Big Oil,” said NoiseCat. “With that snapshot of what’s happening, regardless of your partisan ideology and identity, is a pretty damning portrait of an administration and a leader.”
After a four-year battle against an administration that activists say has disregarded the lives of Indigenous peoples, a shift in leadership may alter the country’s course toward environmental justice. President-elect Biden has already committed to a just transition away from fossil fuels with his sweeping climate plan, including the opposition of oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic refuge.
If leases are finalized before Biden takes office on January 20, reversing course won’t be easy, but there are still ways Biden can stop drilling.
The company that gets the lease would have to get at least eight federal permits approved, and go through more environmental review processes under a new Biden administration, before drilling can begin. Biden could block or delay those permits. But even if he does not block them and Trump does find bidders, it could still take years before the oil begins to flow — if it does at all.
Still, there’s loud and growing pressure from environmentalists and Indigenous communities to push for environmental justice and take action on the climate crisis now — and throughout the next administration. “There’s going to be an overall need to protect our public lands and natural resources and to repair relationships with the First Peoples of this land,” NoiseCat said.