Partisan politics over wise energy policy

Partisan politics over wise energy policy
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The largest expanse of pristine wilderness in the United States, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), is at risk of becoming a staging ground for heavy machinery, with oil drilling projects threatening to displace and damage wildlife and natural ecosystems.

A rider slipped into Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 lifted a decades-long bi-partisan ban on oil and gas leasing in ANWR, marking one the most egregious examples of the Trump administration’s short-sighted focus on so-called “energy dominance” over rational policy.

This rider, if allowed to stand, would usher in irreparable harms to wildlife and untouched ecosystems, while achieving paltry, if any, benefits. A recent study conducted by Yale researchers found approximately 70 percent of American voters support protecting ANWR. But the rushed Tax Act rider sought to bury the unpopular and consequential environmental policy within the budget resolution process, which affords limited opportunity for debate and no opportunity for public comment. Action by the new, soon-to-installed Congress is now the best hope for preventing permanent harms to our public lands.

The ban was lifted as part of the Republican-led tax reform package. The new legislation directs the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to hold two lease sales, of not fewer than 400,000 acres each, within the Coastal Plain of the Refuge within 10 years. In the year since this policy coup d’etat, the Interior Department is attempting to fast-track efforts to develop the area.

For decades, ANWR has been off limits to oil and gas development. In 1960, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Range to preserve the undisturbed wildlife and wilderness in the Arctic region. In 1980, Congress expanded the area to almost 19 million acres and gave it permanent protection as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At the time, Congress set aside a 1.5 million-acre expanse known as the Coastal Plain, prohibiting any oil and gas development there unless authorized by an act of Congress. For six decades, all efforts to open the Coastal Plain to oil and gas have met with defeat in Congress.

ANWR is home to polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, muskoxen, porcupine caribou, and myriad other species. Among its grandeurs, the unspoiled Refuge contains five different ecological zones, including lagoons, wetlands, forests, mountains and tundra. The Coastal Plain is often described as the heart of the Refuge: a vital area for wildlife breeding and host to nearly 200 species of migratory birds. It is designated as a critical habitat for polar bears, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, which concentrate their dens within the Coastal Plain.

Developing the Coastal Plain would have dire consequences. One company is already seeking to conduct seismic testing across the Coastal Plain, even though this testing is known to harm caribou, polar bears, and other animals as well as their habitats. The sole exploratory well ever allowed in ANWR, in the mid-1980s, killed native vegetation, melted permafrost, and left permanent scarring. Oil development is predicted to negatively affect several species including caribou, which depend on the Coastal Plains for calving, and thereby threaten the cultural heritage and existence of the Gwich’in tribe, which relies on caribou for almost 80 percent of their diet.

Further, climate change is heating up the Arctic faster than anywhere else, with sea ice shrinking 14 percent each decade, leading to destruction of wildlife habitat, melting glaciers, and coastal erosion. Drilling and development will only exacerbate these risks, and impair the Coastal Plain’s value as a carbon sink, absorbing atmospheric carbon in forests and tundra.

Adding to the directive’s irrationality, the United States does not need this oil and gas. Independent analysis shows low potential output from the ANWR Coastal Plain. There are many other places in the United States with oil and gas reserves that have existing infrastructure to develop and move these commodities to market far less expensively than in the Arctic, and with fewer environmental effects. Proponents of drilling in the Arctic Refuge have argued that it is necessary to reduce oil imports, but this argument does not hold up. Since 2005, U.S. net petroleum imports declined from 12.5 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) to approximately 5 million bpd. This marked decline is a result of increases in energy conservation and fuel economy (although ironically, the Trump administration is seeking to weaken fuel economy standards), as well as an increase in domestic oil production in established fields in the continental United States. As noted by the Republican congressmen who opposed inserting the Coastal Plain rider into the 2017 Tax Act, “[t]he resources beneath the Refuge’s Coastal Plain simply aren’t necessary for our nation’s energy independence.”

The administration’s myopic “energy dominance” agenda entrenches the United States in the fossil fuel economy of the past — instead of accelerating the renewable energy and energy conservation technologies of tomorrow. And it takes a scorched earth approach in doing so.

The results of the midterm election afford a chance for Congress to promote rational, responsible management of our public lands by rescinding the rider and restoring the refuge as protected wilderness. Barring this, Interior and leasing proponents are in for a protracted legal battle, with the future of America’s last great wilderness at stake.

Jayni Hein is the policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law, where she also teaches natural resources law and policy. 

Tracy Stein, J.D., is a board member of Earth Day Initiative, a researcher for the Institute for Policy Integrity, and works with the Town of New Castle’s sustainability advisory board.