Q&A on Trump administration efforts to open Arctic Refuge to oil exploration
Are efforts to explore for oil in the Arctic Refuge legal?
No. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act does not allow exploration in the Arctic Refuge. Any attempt to do so goes against 35 years of U.S. Department of Interior policy spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations. Even Secretary James Watt said during the Reagan administration that there could be no more exploration in the refuge.
Can the Trump administration’s efforts be challenged?
Yes. The Trump administration is obviously trying to circumvent the regulations to force exploration that is not allowed under ANILCA. Based on decades of understanding within the Department of the Interior, there likely would be multiple opportunities to challenge these egregious tactics.
Didn’t the state of Alaska try—and fail—to get permission for seismic testing?
Yes. Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell tried to launch seismic exploration four years ago, arguing that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act required the U.S. Department of Interior to approve such plans for the Arctic Refuge. Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, however, ruled in 2015 that her agency’s authority to approve exploration in the refuge expired in 1987 under ANILCA, and Jewell’s decision was upheld by a federal judge.
Why oppose seismic testing?
The Arctic Refuge is a national treasure, and the Coastal Plain is its biological heart. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act closed the Coastal Plain to development, such that neither seismic exploration nor drilling is allowed. The 1.5 million-acre coastal plain provides vital habitat for polar bears, and is the birthing ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd that sustains indigenous communities such as Arctic Village, where Gwich’in people refer to the coastal plain as “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
• The 2-D seismic exploration conducted in the 1980s resulted in significant impacts to tundra vegetation that persisted for decades. As of 2011, some sections of the 1980s seismic trails were still visible.
• Three-dimensional seismic studies conducted with 56,000-pound “thumper” trucks, bulldozers and dozens of heavy vehicles, could result in even more damage. Three-dimensional seismic lines are generally only about 660 to 1,600 feet apart, compared with 2-D lines that are 3 to 12 miles apart.
• Seismic activity can contribute to permafrost melt, which in turn leads to thermokarst erosion and water quality impacts.
• An environmental assessment for 3-D seismic surveys noted that “impacts occur despite existing stipulations on operations, and cannot be further mitigated, given the types of equipment currently used.”
Is any exploration allowed now?
No. Neither ANILCA or the Comprehensive Conservation Plan—the document that sets management policy for the Arctic Refuge—allow exploration in the coastal plain, which has been recommended for wilderness designation after a multi-year process involving public input and scientific study. The CCP recommends designated wilderness status for virtually all of the refuge, therefore the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages those lands as future wilderness.
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
What are the values of the refuge?
At more than 19 million acres, the Arctic Refuge in northeastern Alaska is America’s largest wildlife refuge and provides habitat and birthing grounds for native 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.
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.
Trump’s assault team:
Defenders of the Arctic Refuge worry that the Trump administration might interpret the law differently than Secretary Jewell, and allow the state to begin looking for oil. At the very least, the administration’s assault team is in place, and its members are well-versed on Alaska resource development. They all played roles in their former positions during the state’s attempts to explore in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, including litigating when they were denied a permit to do so
• Sen. Dan Sullivan, a pro-drilling Republican, was elected to the Senate in 2015 after first being appointed Alaska’s attorney general by former Gov. Sarah Palin, and later becoming commissioner of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
• Joseph Balash was recently nominated by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to serve as Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management and is expected to be easily confirmed. Balash most recently served as Sullivan’s chief of staff and was formerly commissioner of Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
• David Bernhardt, Trump’s nominee for Interior’s Deputy Secretary, was once a key aide to then-Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and was involved in the doctoring of scientific findings about effects of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to documents released earlier this year by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. When Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski in 2001 asked Norton for an evaluation of the potential impacts of oil drilling on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report was extensively rewritten in Norton’s office to omit and manipulate scientific information to result in a document more favorable to drilling. At that time, Bernhardt was Norton’s counselor and director of congressional affairs for her office. He was also involved in the state of Alaska’s lawsuit regarding exploration in the coastal plain .
With Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, up for re-election in 2018, he and DNR Commissioner Mack are aggressively pursuing the opening of federal lands in the Arctic to oil development.
We must defend the Arctic Refuge.
The Arctic Refuge is a national treasure that has values far exceeding whatever oil might lie beneath it. We have a moral obligation to protect it for future generations.