Trump Handing Western Arctic to Corporate Polluters

The Trump Administration has given ConocoPhillips the go ahead to conduct an “exploration program” in America’s Western Arctic. You may recall that the Interior Department authorized last December yet another damaging corporate incursion into the magnificent public lands of America’s Western Arctic. Here’s what the seemingly innocuous phrase, “exploration program,” means: destructive drilling to identify the choicest areas from which to extract oil and gas.  

With President Trump’s numerous assaults upon the environment, he is hoping that this stretch of America’s Arctic will be lost in the shuffle. But he’s sorely mistaken: The Native Village of Nuiqsut (on the border of the Western Arctic), along with several conservation groups including NRDC, sued the Trump Administration last week for slamming through approval of Conoco’s exploration program in an attempt to rig the Western Arctic for the oil and gas industry.  

Time and again, Trump’s Interior has rushed to undermine the limited protections in the Western Arctic and turn the area into a plaything for extractive industry.  Time and again, the Administration has ignored the realities of climate change that are hitting the Arctic hardest. And time and again, it has done so at the expense of the people and wildlife that call this special place home.

This must stop. The Western Arctic comprises one of the ecologically richest public land designations in the United States, only part of which is revealed in this photograph above. Its breathtaking landscape of meandering rivers, thaw lakes, and vast plains, makes this unique place a crucial habitat for bears, caribou, muskoxen, and an astounding number of birds. 

Teshekpuk Lake, seen in the photo below, is a particularly rich example of this unsurpassed endowment. The Lake’s remarkable ecosystem is world-renowned for the migratory birds it hosts and the caribou that come there to calve, protect themselves from insects, and overwinter. 

 
Teshekpuk Lake, Alaska

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Moreover, the richness of this ecosystem makes it a key resource for some Alaska Native communities, providing hunting, fishing, and trapping opportunities. And these are connected to important cultural and social values, not to mention significant public health and economic benefits. For instance, such opportunities can provide cost-effective means of satisfying nutritional needs, given the expense of transporting food to the Arctic. The development underway in the Western Arctic threatens to undermine these opportunities.

Conoco’s destructive exploration program is just one part of the Trump Administration’s larger effort to open the Western Arctic and permanently degrade places like Teshekpuk Lake. This year’s program, for instance, will run alongside other assaults, including physically intrusive surveying, extensive road construction, and the development of other nearby lands—both onshore and offshore—for the production of oil and gas. 

More broadly, Interior is attempting to weaken the so-called “Integrated Activity Plan” that governs management of the Western Arctic. This 2013 plan is a compromise that protects some key portions of the Western Arctic and needs strengthening, not rollback.

With each passing day, this Administration shows its insatiable appetite for weakening environmental protections to aid polluters’ quest for oil. It continues to push this into the Arctic, in the face of mounting damage from climate change and oblivious to the extraordinary values of the area. The opposition spearheaded by Nuiqsut and other organizations, however, sends a clear message: don’t count on us forgetting the Western Arctic.

About the Authors

Garett Rose

Staff Attorney, Alaska Project, Nature program

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