Story at a glance

  • Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is expected to approve plans for oil and gas companies to drill in the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Environmental activists and scientists warn that native animals, such as polar bears and migratory birds, stand to be adversely threatened.

The U.S. Department of the Interior will reportedly approve a land leasing program Monday that will allow oil drilling to commence in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a 19-million acre territory located in northeastern Alaska, according to an exclusive from The Wall Street Journal

The land was protected by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 and officially declared a refuge by Congress in 1980. 

This landmark lease would be the first time drilling is permitted in the ANWR, despite substantial pushback from environmentalists. Pro-drilling efforts have been largely supported by oil companies and Alaskan officials like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Clearing the land for leasing will let companies submit bids on oil leases “right around the end of the year,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told The Journal.


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Although the land is hotly contested, the value of its oil reserves remains a question. Multiple banks, such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo have recently announced that they will not finance any company’s drilling operations in the ANWR, partially due to the low prices of crude oil and external pressure to divest, compounded by the coronavirus-induced recession. 

Bernhardt has assured that the drilling can be done in an environmentally safe way, citing laws put in place by Congress when it passed a mandate in a tax bill to lease oil from a 1.5 million portion of the region in 2017.

“Congress gave us a very clear directive here, and we have to carry out that directive consistent with the directive that they gave, and consistent with the procedural statutes,” Bernhardt reportedly said. “I have a remarkable degree of confidence that this can be done in a way that is responsible, sustainable and environmentally benign.”

He specified that drilling can occur in the coastal plain along the Arctic Ocean without causing any adverse environmental impact. 

Environmental advocacy groups sharply disagree, noting that the refuge is home to wildlife like polar bears, caribou and about 200 species of migratory birds, according to the Alaska Wilderness League. The region is also the native territory of the indigenous Gwich’in people, who depend on the native fauna as a food source. 

In a statement to The Journal regarding a different drilling project, the organization decried the Trump Administration’s growing support for oil cultivation in the region. 

“This is an all-out war on Alaska,” said Kristen Miller, the Alaska Wilderness League’s conservation director. “Since the Trump administration took office in 2017, it has been laser-focused on handing some of the largest expanses of wild lands left in North America over to the extraction industries…in order to turn wild Alaska into an industrial park.”

The Department of the Interior conducted an environmental impact study of the ANWR and found that the planned drilling activity would not pose a threat to the native polar bear population living there. 

The study received criticism from environmentalists and scientists, as well as Democratic lawmakers. In July, lawmakers pushed back against the Department of Interior’s plans to drill in the wildlife refuge, arguing that the agency’s study made an “unsupportable conclusion” that drilling in the area wouldn’t harm the environment. 

“[The Department of Interior’s] fundamentally flawed analysis ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence that identifies devastating impacts to polar bears from oil and gas activities," Democratic lawmakers on the House Natural Resources Committee wrote to Interior in a letter spearheaded by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).

Bernhardt clarified that the Department of the Interior’s planned approval is a result of President Trump’s enthusiasm for supporting the U.S. energy sector.

“We take our direction from the president. The president has been very robust on opening additional areas of federal lands, as appropriate, to resource development,” Bernhardt told reporters. “We’ve tried to hit his priorities as expeditiously as we can—with appropriate deliberation.”

House Democrats have attempted to slow the drilling process by introducing a bill to block oil and gas drilling near polar bear dens in an attempt to conserve the endangered species. 

“Proposed oil exploration would further threaten this species, crushing and destroying their dens and cause some mother polar bears to abandon their maternity dens leaving any surviving cubs to perish,” Huffman the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.

Congress told the Department of the Interior that the first lease sale must occur by December 2021. If the government inks deals with oil companies while Republicans are still represented in the White House, it becomes more difficult for a potential 2020 Democrat administration to undo the leases. 


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Editor's note: corrected for accuracy 08/18/2020 at 11:50

Published on Aug 17, 2020