At this time of year when children are enchanted by images of Santa’s reindeer and dancing polar bears, these beloved species face a grim reality on the ground in America’s Arctic: any day now, the Trump administration will officially open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. That could amount to a death sentence for America’s threatened polar bears and majestic caribou, among other precious wildlife.
But the past year reminds us: Congress will not allow the destruction of America’s Serengeti to go down without a fight.
Representative Huffman’s Leadership
The House of Representatives kicked off 2019 with a bang, when Arctic champion Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) introduced the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act (H.R. 1146). This vital legislation would halt the Trump administration’s efforts to industrialize the Arctic Refuge by repealing a controversial provision in the 2017 GOP tax bill that mandated oil and gas leasing on the coastal plain. Thanks to a coordinated lobby effort on behalf of NRDC and our partners in the Arctic Refuge defense coalition, more than 100 members joined as original cosponsors on the bill.
A month later, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a legislative hearing on H.R. 1146. Representatives from the Indigenous, science, recreation and faith communities provided compelling testimony against Arctic Refuge drilling.
Gwich’in leaders, including executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Bernadette Demientieff, underscored the pressing need to protect the Refuge’s coastal plain—the calving ground of the majestic porcupine caribou herd: "We are caribou people — we carry a piece of the caribou in our heart, and the caribou have a piece of us in their heart." Rep. Don Young (R-AK) appalled witnesses by flatly disregarding the Gwich’in leaders’ testimony, claiming that Congress should not listen to them because they "are not the Natives that are directly affected."
In late Spring—following an intensive cosponsorship drive—the House Natural Resources Committee approved the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, with a whopping 182 cosponsors. More than 30,000 NRDC Action Fund members urged their member of Congress to support of the bill.
A Committed Congress
The House of Representatives handily voted to reject an amendment by Rep. Young that would have removed important language in the Interior appropriations bill requiring the Bureau of Land Management to set a minimum bid amount on any Arctic Refuge oil and gas lease sale. NRDC advocated in support of this language, which would have held Congress accountable for the false promises made by drilling proponents during negotiations around the 2017 tax bill, by requiring a minimum bid capable of generating the $1.1 billion in revenues projected by the tax act. While the provision was ultimately excluded from the final FY20 appropriations package, the strong vote in support of the provision reflects a bipartisan understanding that handing over the Arctic Refuge for oil and gas development is fiscally irresponsible.
Congress further affirmed its commitment to halting the administration’s drilling scheme and restoring protections to the Arctic Refuge in early September when, in a historic and bipartisan vote, the House of Representatives passed the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. That same week, Senate champions introduced companion legislation (S. 2461) via video announcement. The House floor vote and Senate bill introduction followed many months of extensive lobbying by NRDC, our environmental and Indigenous partners, and our activists nationwide.
In an apparent attempt to steal the news cycle, that same week the Trump administration hastily finalized its environmental review process for oil and gas leasing on the Arctic Refuge’s pristine coastal plain. In rushing its environmental review, the administration blatantly ignored scientific findings from career officials and understated the devastating impacts that drilling will have on our climate, the Gwich’in people, and imperiled wildlife.
The Fight Ahead
In 2020, NRDC will continue to work closely with Arctic allies on the Hill in fighting the administration’s scheme to sell off one of the world’s last wild places for oil and gas development. While the chances of Senate action on the Arctic Refuge protection legislation in 2020 are slim, the opportunities for oversight are likely to be many. And rest assured, we will keep reminding drilling proponents that handing one of America’s last wild places to polluters is not simply unpopular; it’s an affront to indigenous rights, fiscally responsible, contrary to science, and dangerous for our climate.