“America’s Serengeti” Faces Unprecedented Congressional Threat

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so spectacular that it’s alternately referred to as America’s Serengeti, the Crown Jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

But Congress is talking about opening up this national treasure to oil and gas drilling.

Here’s what is at stake: The grandest and wildest of America’s publicly-owned reserves—19.6 million acres of unspoiled nature—and one the largest intact ecosystems on the planet. Home to abundant, diverse and increasingly imperiled wildlife, the Arctic Refuge provides critical habitat for endangered polar bears, wolves, musk oxen, hundreds of migratory bird species, and belugas, humpbacks, and ice seals just offshore. Its Coastal Plain is the calving ground for the regal Porcupine Caribou herd. The herd—some 170,000 caribou strong—is critical to the culture and the survival of the Gwich’in people.

The Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain is the calving ground for the regal Porcupine Caribou herd. The herd—at 170,000 strong—is critical to the culture and the survival of the Gwich’in people.

Copyright: Western Arctic National Parklands

With this unparalleled landscape and pristine habitat in mind, President Eisenhower established the Arctic Refuge in 1960, “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Today, support for preserving the Arctic Refuge is strong as ever: recent public opinion research shows that two-thirds of Americans from across the political spectrum are opposed to drilling in the Refuge, and a majority are “strongly opposed.” Despite this broad support for protecting these sacred wildlands, Republicans in Congress are working right now to expedite dangerous and destructive oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain.

On October 19th, the Senate narrowly passed a budget resolution that instructs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee to come up with $1 billion in revenue to help pay for the GOP’s proposed $1.5 trillion tax cuts for the wealthy. It is hardly a secret that ENR Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is intent on using this instruction to expedite drilling in the Arctic Refuge. This week, at her behest, the Committee is holding a hearing to discuss oil and gas development in the Refuge’s 1.5 million acre coastal plain, the area the Gwich’in people refer to as the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

History has shown time and time again that where we drill, we spill.

Just this week, Alaska’s main oil and gas regulatory body issued an emergency order of all North Slope wells in Alaska, after thawing permafrost cracked the casing on a BP oil well, starting a leak that continued for days. BP reported that roughly 45,000 kilograms of gas and 63 gallons of crude oil have leaked. Senator Murkowski is sure to spend much of the hearing trying to argue that new technologies will allow “environmentally responsible” oil and gas development, and will successfully mitigate any harm to the Arctic Refuge. Such claims could not be farther from the truth. Regardless of technology, drilling in the Refuge would irreversibly damage this pristine wilderness and the diverse wildlife that depends on it for survival.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the nation’s largest denning site for pregnant polar bears, which are endangered. Drilling in the Refuge would irreversibly damage this pristine wilderness and the wildlife that depends on it for survival.

Copyright: David Jenkins

America doesn’t need this oil. The Energy Information Administration’s 2017 Annual Energy Outlook found that oil consumption in the United States between now and 2040 will remain lower than 2005 oil consumption levels, when Congress last attempted to push forward drilling in the Refuge. And experts and the government alike predict very little to no change in the price of gasoline to consumers if the Arctic Refuge were developed. Further, counter to what proponents of drilling may argue, energy experts have concluded that “there simply is not enough oil projected to be under the Refuge’s coastal plain to substantially increase U.S. energy security.” We shouldn’t sacrifice the unique cultural and ecological assets of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain in the misguided and unachievable pursuit of “American energy dominance” that President Trump and his oil industry allies tout.

So, what is there to be gained by destroying America’s foremost wildlife refuge for less oil than we consume in a single year?

Quite simply: nothing.

The Arctic Refuge has value far beyond any oil that might lie beneath it. We don’t need the oil, the American people don’t want it, and it is Congress’s job to stop it from happening. 

About the Authors

Nora Apter

Legislative Advocate, Government Affairs

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