For the 24 years I was privileged to serve in the U.S. Senate, I opposed oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The 19 million acres in the Arctic Refuge are some of the world’s wildest, most unspoiled lands and are a part of America’s great national heritage.
The Arctic Refuge is one of the places on Earth where we come closest to glimpsing the creative work of God. It should inspire our awe and careful stewardship. The native Alaskan Gwich’in people refer to the Refuge’s 1.4 million acre coastal plain as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
It is habitat for caribou, three species of bear, the ancient musk ox and nearly 200 species of migrating birds (at least one from each of the 50 states).
So when the Senate Budget Committee and the full House of Representatives recently approved budget resolutions that could allow oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge, I felt a familiar jolt of urgency. After more than three decades of successful bipartisan battles to protect this precious American natural resource, it pains me to have to say once again that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is in danger.
It’s especially troubling that, this time, Congressional proponents of the drilling proposal seem to be ready to use Senate procedures to avoid open and fair debate.
This is too important a national decision to make without offering an opportunity for a full examination of the consequences. Why not allow Congress and the American people — who, according to opinion polls, oppose exploiting such sensitive, special lands — to debate this matter in regular order? Through open debate, voters will learn that the pending proposal actually has nothing to do with budget numbers or tax reform, as its proponents claim.
The advocates for oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge are trying to sell this maneuver as a deficit reduction device. But, at best, it will offset less than 1 percent of increased deficits. And that’s only if we choose to believe some preposterously high revenue estimates.
The Trump administration projects that leasing in the Arctic Refuge will generate $3.6 billion in revenues. But to get to that number, companies would have to bid an average of $2,400 per acre on every acre of the Coastal Plain, or more than 10 times the average of $168 per acre they paid on Alaska’s North Slope. That’s highly unlikely at a time when surging oil and gas production across the U.S. has sapped the energy industry’s willingness to drill further in Alaska’s remote terrain and face its punishing weather.
If we allow the building of a huge oil extraction and transport infrastructure in the Arctic Refuge, we risk permanently disrupting its fragile ecosystem, cutting wildlife from the habitats they need to survive and disfiguring the landscape forever. If we are willing to deface one of our most iconic special lands, how safe are other protected places from such unnecessary and irresponsible incursions?
Senators will take up this matter soon. When they do, I urge them to think about the gravity of the choice they have to make. They can prevent irreparable damage to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and thereby discourage similar efforts to spoil other places of natural beauty and wilderness throughout America.
There are times and places when a civilized society like ours must draw lines to protect our natural inheritance and conserve it for the future because even though going over those lines will make some money for some people it is just not worth it. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is such a place and now is the time to protect it.
Joseph I. Lieberman (D) was a United States senator from Connecticut from 1989 to 2013.