Arctic refuge moves closer to opening for oil
Washington – The Trump administration moved closer on Dec. 20 to opening thousands of miles within Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing, issuing a draft report that concluded the polar bears, caribou and other wildlife could safely share their untouched wilderness with oil and gas producers.
The report released by the Bureau of Land Management studied the environmental impact of opening between two-thirds and all of 1.65 million acres of coastal plain within the remote refuge for oil and gas leasing.
Release of the legally required environmental impact statement marks one of the last major actions in office by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, an ardent supporter of the oil and gas industry who leaves office Jan. 2 amid ethics investigations.
In a statement, Zinke called the step toward opening Alaska’s North Slope for oil and gas development a move toward an “energy-dominant America.”
A strong leasing program within the wilderness area “helps us realize our tremendous energy potential without harming our environment or way of life,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in another statement.
The administration’s environmental review acknowledged that opening the coastal plains within the nation’s largest wildlife refuge would impact Alaska Native hunters, as well as caribou herds and other arctic animals and migratory birds that depend upon the refuge.
The report concluded, however, that the lease sales could be carried out “while balancing biological and ecological concerns.”
President Donald Trump had insisted Congress include a provision mandating the lease sales within the wildlife refuge in recent tax legislation. Trump said a friend had told him that every Republican president since Ronald Reagan had tried and failed to open the wildlife refuge for oil and gas.
President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995. Democrats defeated a similar Republican proposal a decade later.
Environmental groups accuse the administration of hurrying the process through, barring adequate review of the risks of opening one of the United States’ wildest remaining areas to oil and gas prospecting and drilling.
Official publication of the environmental impact statement opens a period of public review, which ends in February.
“The process laid out in the plan is rushed and reckless, defying good science and meaningful dialogue with stakeholders,” Jamie Williams, head of the nonprofit Wilderness Society, said in a statement.
“Some places should remain untouched for future generations,” Williams said.
“This is a land grab, pure and simple, and the individuals responsible care little about impacts to wildlife or the damage they would be inflicting on Alaska Native people,” executive director Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League said.
The report examines wildlife and habitat at risk from opening the wilderness area.
For example, a declining local population of 900 polar bears uses the targeted area for raising cubs and hunting.