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Biden opens the door to protecting the Arctic Refuge

Biden opens the door to protecting the Arctic Refuge
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The clock is running out on the Trump presidency. Trump, who has been called the worst president for our environment in history, and his administration seem determined to light as much of the country on fire as possible before heading out the door. 

Since the election, his industry insiders in the Department of Interior (DOI) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been jamming through last minute efforts to push fossil fuel development across public lands and stripping rules and regulations that were put in place to protect the clean air, lands and waters that sustain us today. At stake are the public lands and wildlife that capture our imagination, along with the rights and cultures of Indigenous peoples and frontline communities who see the impacts in their backyards every day.

Nowhere has this anti-environment agenda been more evident than in Alaska, where the Trump administration has looked to undo protections and sell off public lands in every corner of the state: opening millions of acres of old-growth forest in the Tongass National Forest to logging; advancing oil extraction in the internationally recognized wetlands of the western Arctic; seeking to undo Arctic Ocean protections that would prevent an icy repeat of Deepwater Horizon; and advancing permitting for a massive gold and copper mine at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay. Each of these, along with too many more to detail — an illegal land swap in the heart of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, bear-baiting in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and rules that allow the shooting of wild bears and their cubs or wolves and wolf pups at den sites — present threats to wildlife, to people and to our ability to effectively combat climate change.

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And with little more than two months of Trump remaining, we’re seeing perhaps the most fraught 11th-hour attack on wild Alaska — a rush to lease the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. On Tuesday, the DOI issued an official request asking oil companies to flag parcels across the refuge’s wildlife-rich coastal plain on which they’d be interested in bidding, the latest step in an Arctic Refuge leasing process that has been flawed from the outset. The agency failed at every step to sufficiently analyze the impacts drilling will have on climate change, air and water quality, keystone species like caribou and polar bears, or on nearby Indigenous communities — the coastal plain is sacred to the Gwich’in people for the role it plays in the life cycle of the Porcupine caribou herd. The plans face multiple lawsuits, having failed in consultation with Indigenous people and ignored numerous bedrock environmental laws, laws put in place to protect our most cherished wild places and wildlife. What we’re left with is an administration trying to sell off one of the wildest places left on the planet before President-elect Biden takes office in January.

At this point, Arctic Refuge oil development appears to have devolved into a vanity project — a holy grail sought for decades by Alaska’s pro-oil elected officials. And while it also became a Trump talking point when passed as part of the 2017 Tax Act, any perceived rewards are now all but assured to slip away. Meanwhile, Alaska’s leadership refuses to acknowledge the need to diversify its economy or the reality that there are simply cheaper places to get oil with less risk. Arctic Refuge drilling never made sense from a climate change, human rights or wildlife protection perspective, but with continued volatility in oil markets and major U.S. and international banks unwilling to invest in Arctic oil, the economic arguments for development no longer hold water either. 

With Trump’s electoral fate sealed and his days in the White House numbered, any lease sale would take place just days before Biden takes office, casting the fate of those leases in serious doubt. Biden ran and won on a platform that included protecting the Arctic Refuge, confronting climate change and upholding environmental justice. The American public is on board and continues to categorically oppose Arctic Refuge drilling. Americans support a transition to clean energy, and voters, including large majorities of Republicans and Independents, overwhelmingly support banking policies that reject funding for Arctic oil and gas. If Biden takes immediate action to halt the Arctic Refuge leasing process when he takes the White House on Jan. 20, it won’t be a national controversy. It will be cheered.

The public backing for restoring Arctic Refuge protections is important, and it fits perfectly within Biden’s broader climate and environment goals. His climate plan supports protecting 30 percent of land and water by the year 2030, and the opportunity to protect biodiversity — natural habitat at scale — in Alaska remains immense. The state is home to the nation’s largest wildlife refuge, its largest national forest, its largest single unit of public land and the vast offshore waters of the Arctic Ocean, each of which is currently under threat from development. Taking Arctic Refuge oil off the table would take with it an estimated 4.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted over the lifetime of extraction. And that’s just the Refuge. Keeping 24 billion barrels of oil and 104 trillion cubic feet of natural gas sequestered beneath the Arctic Ocean keeps us from releasing an additional 15.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere. Slowing new development in Alaska’s western Arctic, with its estimated 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, nixes more than 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. And a single acre of Tongass old-growth is estimated to store nearly 70 tons of carbon in leaves, trunks, roots and soil, and has the capacity, on average, to sequester an additional 1,600 pounds of carbon every year.

Permanent protections for these and other Alaskan public lands are critical to addressing the climate crisis. Voters have given the incoming Biden administration a mandate to advance the most ambitious, pro-conservation and climate agenda of any president in American history. It’s now on all of us to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work to organize, advocate and fight for the legacy we hope to leave future generations.

Kristen Miller is the conservation director at Alaska Wilderness League. Follow the organization on Twitter @alaskawild.