The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge) is a place of spectacular beauty as well as ecological and cultural significance, but right now it’s vulnerable to oil and gas development. These industries threaten to pollute our air and water, degrade public lands, and ruin an Indigenous way of life.
As Mainers we value our public lands and the space they provide for recreation and wildlife conservation just as we recognize the inherent rights of the Indigenous people who cared for these lands long before European settlers were here. That’s why the Natural Resources Council of Maine is joining with people across the nation in calling on Congress to protect the Arctic Refuge forever, once and for all.
The Arctic Refuge was established in 1960 by President Eisenhower for its “unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it spans 19.64 million acres in northeastern Alaska, about 40% of which is federally designated as wilderness, making it the largest area managed as wilderness in the national wildlife refuge system.
The beating heart of the Arctic Refuge is the Coastal Plain—roughly 1.6 million acres near the Arctic Ocean. This is where the Indigenous Gwich’in Nation makes their home on the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. But the Coastal Plain is not designated as wilderness, and therefore it isn’t protected from oil and gas drilling. That needs to change.
The Gwich’in Nation—consisting of 9,000 members in Canada and Alaska—has safeguarded these lands for generations. They deeply oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge, which threatens to alter caribou migrations and potentially the population, putting the Gwich’in way of life at risk. They have depended on this herd for their subsistence and culture for 20,000 years, so protecting the caribou is a matter of basic human rights for the Gwich’in. Their lives are culturally and spiritually interlaced with the health of the herd, using the meat for food, the hides for clothing, and referencing the caribou in songs and stories.
The Porcupine Caribou Herd, named after the Porcupine River that runs through their range, make their annual migration to the Coastal Plain to give birth to calves, traveling nearly 800 miles from their winter range to reach the Coastal Plain. Hundreds of other fish and wildlife inhabit the Arctic Refuge as well, including spawning streams for Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, and other valued fish species; wolves; muskoxen; Dall sheep; Arctic foxes; and nearly 200 species of migratory birds that migrate to 6 continents and all 50 states. The Coastal Plain is also critical habitat for imperiled polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Oil exploration and development—involving seismic testing and the construction of roads, well pads, and pipelines in critical wildlife habitat is an existential threat to polar bears and would jeopardize the survival of many other species by displacing them and destroying habitat.
For decades, this region has been the subject of political debate because of the oil reserves there. Specifically, some lawmakers and fossil fuel corporations have eyed the Coastal Plain for oil and gas development, even as the United States is shifting toward modern, clean energy sources.
We cannot allow our public lands to be spoiled by polluting industries and sold to big oil companies. There is too much at stake.
Climate change has taken center stage in debates over the Arctic Refuge. The Arctic is warming quickly relative to the rest of the planet, threatening livelihoods and wildlife. Plus, melting ice makes the planet warm faster by lowering albedo (an indicator of how well a surface is reflecting solar energy) provided by Arctic ice.
The U.S. can be a leader in clean energy, and we don’t need the oil in the Arctic to achieve energy independence; we need to invest in sensible, future-facing technologies, especially given the impacts of climate change. Drilling would exacerbate the already devastating climate impacts on the Arctic Refuge and around the world, causing harm to communities and further testing the resilience of ecosystems.
Drilling in the Arctic Refuge does not make economic sense nor is it worth the cost of the irreparable damage it would cause. Major banks in the U.S. and Canada have said they won’t finance drilling in the Arctic Refuge. And yet, President Donald Trump’s tax plan, passed in 2017, required two Arctic Refuge lease sales by 2024. The economic “justification” was that the sales would generate $1.8 billion over a decade for the federal government and State of Alaska.
That prediction fell flat earlier this year. On January 6, 2021, in a rushed attempt the Bureau of Land Management, under the Trump Administration, opened up lease sales on 1.56 million acres on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The sale was an abject failure, as it only drew $14.4 million in bids on about half of the offered leases, falling far short of proponents’ expectations. None of the bids were from major oil companies, and nearly all of the leases were purchased by a company owned by the Alaskan government to try to show that the lease sale wasn’t a total flop.
Congress needs to act now to protect the Arctic Refuge forever. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order putting a temporary halt on Arctic Refuge lease sales. Then on June 1, 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that a thorough environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would be conducted “to address legal deficiencies in the current leasing program’s environmental review under NEPA.”
But for the Arctic Refuge to be permanently protected, a legislative fix is required. We’re calling on Maine’s Congressional delegation to work with their colleagues to move swiftly to adopt a solution.
Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is unjustified from every standpoint. Join us in calling for these sensitive, remote public lands to be permanently protected.
— by Melanie Sturm, NRCM Forests & Wildlife Director