MEMO: Trump administration pursuing overly aggressive timeline for Arctic Refuge drilling

Mar 21, 2018

The Porcupine Caribou Herd—which depends on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a calving area—could be imperiled by the Trump administration's plan to begin selling oil and gas leases in the area next year.

Moe Witschard


TO: National Energy and Environmental Reporters

FROM: Tim Woody, Alaska Communications Manager, The Wilderness Society,, 907-223-2443

RE: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


DATE: March 21, 2018


In its push for an aggressive timeline for oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Trump administration is threatening to circumvent environmental analyses, public process, tribal consultations and environmental reviews.


The stakes for the refuge’s sensitive coastal plain—which is important polar bear denning habitat and the calving ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd—have never been higher.


After nearly 40 years of bipartisan protection for the Arctic Refuge, the U.S. Senate in December passed a tax bill that paves the way for oil drilling in the environmentally fragile 1.5-million acre coastal plain of the iconic refuge in northeastern Alaska.


During a trip to Alaska that included a visit to the North Slope in early March, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Joe Balash spoke at an industry gathering in Anchorage and expressed the Trump administration’s desire to pursue an aggressive timeline for oil and gas exploration and drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We expect to move pretty quickly on that project,” Bernhardt said.


Speaking at a major oil industry conference in Texas, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recently said the administration might hold the first lease sale for oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge as early as next year. News reports quoted Sullivan as saying, “It’s my hope, and this is a very aggressive timeline, that we would have the first lease sale ... to be sometime in 2019.”


As you inform your readers about potential oil and gas exploration and drilling in the refuge, we hope you will include coverage of this unacceptable assault on America’s public lands.


“Once again, the Trump administration appears to be racing to sell off America’s public lands, and they seem perfectly happy to shortcut normal processes and overlook the concerns of local communities in the pursuit of reckless development,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society, recently said in a statement to the press.


“This administration cannot possibly evaluate all of the relevant information and make informed decisions about the impacts of oil and gas on the refuge’s sensitive coastal plain in such a short amount of time.”


At 19.3 million acres, the Arctic Refuge is America’s largest wildlife refuge and provides habitat for caribou, polar bear and migrating birds from across the globe, and a diverse range of wilderness lands. Its coastal plain—stretching north from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean—provides vital denning habitat for endangered polar bears and is the calving ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which contains nearly 200,000 animals.


Alaska’s indigenous Gwich’in people call the coastal plain Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, which translates to the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. To the Gwich’in—who have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years—the Porcupine herd is a vital source of food and an integral part of the culture. They consider Arctic Refuge drilling a threat to their survival, and a matter of human rights.


Oil and gas drilling would have devastating impacts on this pristine and fragile ecosystem, caused by the massive infrastructure needed to extract and transport oil. Drilling the Arctic is risky, would fragment vital habitat and chronic spills of oil and other toxic substances onto the fragile tundra would forever scar this now pristine landscape and disrupt its wildlife.

We urge you to report on the dangers of oil exploration in the Arctic Refuge, and the Trump administration’s reckless pursuit of an irresponsibly fast timeline for lease sales.


The Arctic Refuge is a national treasure, and we have a moral obligation to protect it for our children and grandchildren.


After a lengthy scientific review that incorporated much public input, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in 2015 that most of the non-designated wilderness lands in the Arctic Refuge be designated wilderness. The agency received nearly a million public comments in support of this action, including from scientists, biologists and researchers. The Arctic Refuge is simply too wild to drill.


The Arctic Refuge was set aside for protection decades ago because of the critical ecological value it holds. It has always been off limits to oil and gas development and should remain that way permanently. Of the 19 million acres already set aside as the refuge, seven million are designated as wilderness, the highest degree of protection available in the United States.


This vast, wild place encompasses five distinct ecological regions, including the lagoons, beaches and salt marshes of coastal marine areas; broad expanses of low-lying plants on the coastal plain; windswept alpine tundra in the Brooks Range; interior highlands where arctic plants transition to boreal forest; and the tall spruce, birch, and aspen of the northern boreal forest. This varied habitat allows 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species to thrive—including the most diverse and stunning populations of wildlife in the Arctic.


Researchers visit the refuge to study wildlife behavior, climate change and how plants and animals cope with a warming environment. Alaska Natives engage in subsistence activities such as hunting and fishing, which also bring sportsmen to the refuge. And the rivers, mountains and tundra attract visitors from around the world for recreational pursuits, like float trips, photography, hiking and viewing wildlife.


This could be our last opportunity to save a vast, intact wilderness tract that is home to iconic species like polar bears, wolves and caribou. Generations of Americans have opposed drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and now we must protect it for generations to come.