In early September, the US Department of the Interior announced its plan to develop the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the world’s last great wild spaces. Of the multiple plans for development the administration had to choose from, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it had chosen the most invasive, making the entire coastal plain open to leasing and including the fewest restrictions on industry footprints.
The BLM then acknowledged in its environmental impact statement that such an aggressive option, combined with climate change, could cause the extinction of several bird species. Development in the coastal plain will require oil companies to pump enormous amounts of water out of the area’s limited bodies, destroying food and habitat for a variety of bird species. Nesting habitat will be lost to roads and other infrastructure, and drilling rigs, towers, and other vehicles will cause collision deaths. The Audubon Society currently has twelve birds on their WatchList of birds with declining or threatened populations, with red-throated loons, common eiders, long-tailed ducks, king eiders, and buff-breasted sandpipers being marked as most threatened by development in the coastal plain.
The 200 species of birds that visit or live in the coastal plain (as listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service) the aren’t the only ones at risk. Federally threatened polar bears raise their cubs in dens along the rivers of the coastal plain, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates 1,500 miles each year to give birth on the plain. Oil and gas infrastructure will threaten a multitude of wildlife, as well as the Alaska Natives, the Gwich’in, who rely on them.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has a long, fraught history, with battles over its protection stretching back 50 years. Environmental advocates have largely prevailed in keeping the refuge protected from the gas and oil industry, supported by a public who, according to a 2017 Yale University Study, largely opposed drilling in the area.
However, in December 2017, Republicans in Congress snuck a provision to establish a fossil-fuel leasing program on the coastal plain. The bill gave the Department of the Interior until 2021 to hold the first of at least two lease sales, totaling over 400,000 acres each. The first of the sales is set to be held before the end of this year.
The typical timeline for the regulatory process prior to offering a lease sale has been rushed, condensed, and fraught with confusion. Senator Lisa Murkowski admitted that the aggressive timeline was largely so that the Trump administration could get a foot in the door, as having leases already in place in the refuge would make it difficult for a future administration to halt drilling.
In the rush, the Interior omitted relevant information from its environmental impact statements, and altered reports from scientists in an attempt to downplay the risks of drilling on the coastal plain. Seismic testing wasn’t even conducted to determine where the largest oil reserves could be.
Thankfully, environmental groups aren’t giving up easily, and are gearing up to fight the plan in courts. Lawsuits are expected to start rolling out in a month or two.