The battle over Alaska refuge oil reignites under Trump

Will Congress break its stalemate on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?


On Oct. 5, the House of Representatives passed a budget resolution that includes a push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to drilling. “Potentially we have a little over 20 billion barrels of oil,” noted Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who helped convince his colleagues that revenue could reduce the national debt. Kristen Miller, interim executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, called the move “a blatant attempt to hijack the budget reconciliation process and use its expedited procedures to undermine decades of protection.”

The Trump administration has renewed efforts to allow drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Refuge as part of a larger push for American energy independence. Last May, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order to jump-start Alaska energy, which he said was “the important first step in a smart and measured approach to energy development in ANWR.” In August, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, James Kurth, took the next step, calling for regulations restricting seismic testing in the refuge to be updated in order to clear the path for exploratory drilling.

Despite their value for the conservation of wildlife and habitat, the more than 560 wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service generally garner less interest — and controversy — than national parks and forests. But the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a rugged landscape of boreal forests and tundra that is home to polar bears and the famed Porcupine caribou herd, is an exception. ANWR has been the site of continual clashes for decades, pitting environmental groups and many Alaskan Natives against Republicans in Washington D.C. and in the state. Questions remain, however, about whether oil extraction there would be economically viable.

The Porcupine caribou herd roams through Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the area which has been proposed for onshore drilling.
Gary Braasch/National Wildlife Federation

The conflict mainly concerns the “1002 Area,” which Zinke’s order called “the largest unexplored, potentially productive geologic onshore basin in the United States.” The 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, which also provides important calving grounds for caribou, was designated as a study area for potential oil and gas development in 1980. A Senate committee approved leasing in 1989 — but the Exxon-Valdez oil spill thwarted those plans. The next effort to open ANWR to drilling failed in 1991. President Bill Clinton vetoed another in 1995; he later tried unsuccessfully to make the Arctic Refuge a national monument. Additional pushes for drilling cropped up during President George W. Bush’s tenure, in 2001 and 2005, and failed to make it through Congress.

In an ongoing stalemate, efforts to protect the refuge have failed, too. Congress has blocked multiple plans to designate large swaths of ANWR as wilderness — and remove the threat of drilling. Currently, eight million acres of the refuge (out of almost 20 million total) are designated wilderness. In the most recent attempt, President Barack Obama recommended wilderness protection for millions more acres, including the 1002 area. At the time, the Department of the Interior got onboard, in stark contrast with the department’s current stance. But Congress held firm; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, rebuffed the suggestion as “a stunning attack on our sovereignty.” 

Following the recent House vote on the budget resolution, the Senate Budget Committee passed a similar bill, with a vote expected in the Senate later this month. “We cannot allow a misguided zeal to drill to override the promise of a healthy future for our communities,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement. Any further steps toward oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge, which Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams called “simply too fragile and special to drill,” will likely face legal action from environmental groups, and the 40-year conflict will continue.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

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