Oil

Why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may not be drilled

The economic, legal and political obstacles to petroleum extraction on Alaska’s North Slope.

 

Every summer, the Porcupine caribou herd travels hundreds of miles to return to the northernmost edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope. There, on the coastal plain known as Area 1002, the cows give birth to calves, and the animals forage for food and huddle together against the swarms of mosquitoes.

The caribou are protected, almost, by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which granted federal protection to more than a quarter of Alaska’s 375 million acres, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the nearly 20-million-acre refuge was designated as wilderness, but the coastal plain was set aside for oil and gas development, if and when Congress approved it. Since then, politicians have batted the issue back and forth, neither fully protecting the region or opening it up. Last month, though, the Trump administration opened the entire 1.56 million acres of the 1002 for leasing, removing the last regulatory hurdle to the prospect of well pads, roads and pipelines in the calving grounds and setting the stage for the exploitation of one of the conservation movement’s most important sites.

Caribou from the Porcupine herd in ANWR.

The fate of the area, and the caribou that depend on it, is not yet sealed, however. Before drill rigs can move in, developers must overcome other legal and political challenges, along with an increasingly uncertain petroleum economy and the possibility of a new presidential administration.

The latest obstacle was thrown up on Sept. 9, when 15 state governments in the Lower 48 and three Alaska tribal entities south of the Refuge — Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council and Venetie Village Council — all took separate legal action against the federal government to try to stop the lease sale. That’s in addition to other lawsuits filed last month by the Gwich’in Steering Committee — which advocates for 15 Gwich’in communities in Alaska and Canada — with 12 other environmental organizations, and another from a coalition of conservation groups. “We used to migrate alongside (the caribou) for over 40,000 years,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Steering Committee, said in an interview. “We can’t survive without them.” The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill in the herd’s calving grounds. With the help of other conservation groups, the Gwich’in managed to convince major banks — including Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase — to curtail or ban investment in fossil fuel projects in Alaska, a serious matter for an industry still reeling from low oil prices.

“We used to migrate alongside (the caribou) for over 40,000 years. We can’t survive without them.”

Even if the conservationists’ legal and political challenges fail, petroleum companies will have to decide whether developing the coastal plain is worth it. Oil prices have been relatively low for the last five years, and new drilling techniques have opened up huge, more appealing reserves in shale formations in the Lower 48.

The oil industry’s longtime “holy grail” — drilling the Arctic Refuge — is no longer quite as alluring, said Philip Wight, a professor specializing in Arctic energy history at University of Alaska Fairbanks. The industry is transforming, and arguments for drilling in ANWR to supercharge revenues for Alaska simply don’t pencil out, he said.

The Trump presidency and its Republican-led Congress gave Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the opportunity to insert a provision approving a lease sale into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Nevertheless, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act initiated an environmental analysis of exploration and development possibilities, which wrapped up this August, when Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision setting the first lease sale of the 1002 for late 2021. But a new president could reverse the approval: A campaign spokesman told the Associated Press last month that Joseph Biden seeks to “permanently protect ANWR and other areas impacted by President Trump's attacks on federal lands and waters.” A new president could use the Antiquities Act to declare the coastal plain a national monument, permanently halting the lease sale. “There is just so much that changed to make this happen that can change completely with the next administration,” Siqiñiq Maupin, Arctic community organizer for Native Movement and the director of Sovereign Inupiaq for a Living Arctic, said in an interview.

Given all the political and economic uncertainties, drilling in the Arctic may simply be too risky for companies today. For now, the fate of the Porcupine caribou lies in the invisible hand of the market, buffeted by political changes that are hard to predict. Guessing what the world is going to look like in the 2030s and beyond is a “substantial risk,” Larry Persily, the former federal coordinator for gas projects in Alaska, said. “You cannot hold on (to a lease) for 20 years in speculation. If you don’t do something, you won’t make the money back. That’s a lot of crystal ball work.”

Victoria Petersen is an intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.