Smart corporations will stay away from the Arctic Refuge

Prepare not to be shocked: As the executive director of the Sierra Club, I believe that opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling is a terrible idea. But even if I hadn’t been to see the pristine beauty of the Refuge for myself, and even if I didn’t know that the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions means we can never afford to burn any oil and gas we might find there, I’d still think it was a terrible idea. 

And I’m far from the only one.

It’s not just environmental advocates who recognize that the Trump administration’s plans to hold a lease sale for drilling rights in the Refuge as both irresponsible and half-baked. A large majority of Americans are against allowing drilling in one of America’s last truly wild places. That’s why the only way drilling proponents in Congress were able to undo decades of protection was by slipping it in as an unrelated provision of the Tax Act in 2017.

Since then, public and political opposition to drilling have only grown, and legislators in both chambers of Congress are currently working to restore protections to this special place. This week, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and five original co-sponsors in the Senate introduced a bill that would permanently protect the coastal plain from drilling, and companion legislation is expected to pass in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support.

We need that legislation because the risks to the people and ecosystem of the Refuge from drilling are catastrophic, but so are the risks for any corporation foolish enough to pursue drilling there. As a policy, Arctic drilling is pure poison, and any oil company that assumes the public won’t hold it accountable for its role in destroying the Refuge (not to mention sabotaging efforts to deal with climate change) is badly miscalculating. The reputational risk alone should give any fossil fuel company (or its financiers) pause.

Some of the world’s most significant institutional investors — representing $2.52 trillion in assets under management — have already warned against supporting oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge because of the threats it would pose to the climate and to the human rights of the Gwich’in people, who have relied on the land and wildlife there for their survival and way of life for thousands of years. At the same time, many of the world’s largest banks, including Barclays, HSBC, BNP Paribas, and Societe Generale, have pledged to stop financing oil and gas projects in the Arctic

Would the gains be worth the risk of destroying a corporate reputation? Better to ask whether there would be any gains at all, because the Trump administration is in such a rush to push this unpopular policy through that it’s asking companies to bid on leases without knowing how much, if any, oil they contain. The plan to conduct destructive seismic testing for oil — the first step toward drilling — has been delayed by as much as a year thanks to public backlash, and BP, the only company with inside information about how much oil might be there, just announced that it’s getting out of the Arctic altogether. If the Interior Department does go through with a lease sale this fall, then any oil company that’s still interested will be bidding blind.

Who’d have guessed that opting to ruin one of America’s most unique and pristine landscapes would prove to be not only morally indefensible but also a terrible business decision? It’s a deal that bears all the shabby hallmarks of Donald J. Trump and any prudent corporation should do the right thing and walk away.

Michael Brune is the Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Tags ANWR drilling Ed Markey

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