After a 30-year battle, Congress voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to oil and gas drilling in 2017, when both houses were controlled by Republicans. That was what Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, demanded in exchange for her vote in favor of President Trump’s massive tax cut bill.
Trump recently instructed administration officials to move forward on opening leases on the 19.6-million acre area, which is more than three times the size of the Adirondacks or one-third the size of Wyoming. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt—a former oil and gas lobbyist—announced on Aug. 17 that by the end of this year, fossil fuel drilling leases will start being sold on a 1.56 million-acre area of the Alaskan refuge’s pristine coastal plain.
The move has been strongly opposed by the Gwich’n indigenous people, who depend on the caribou whose calving grounds are in ANWR, by environmentalists, and by people who oppose building fossil fuel infrastructure in what many consider a sacred place. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Ryan Schleeter, senior communications specialist with Greenpeace USA, one of the groups leading opposition to drilling in the Arctic. Here he talks about what’s at stake and what difference a Biden presidency could make in stopping fossil fuel exploitation in ANWAR.
RYAN SCHLEETER: What is new here is that Trump has instructed his Department of Interior to put a couple of vast areas within the Arctic Refuge up for sale for oil and gas companies. And as far as oil development in the area, there has been some seismic testing that has begun around the Arctic Refuge. Seismic testing is the first step towards looking to see where oil might be underground or underwater, and it also has its own set of damages to wildlife. It’s a question mark as to how much oil and gas is underneath the soil there, but really the main point for us is that it all needs to stay underground for a variety of environmental, climate and justice-related reasons.
MELINDA TUHUS: With oil prices already low and then getting really pummeled by the pandemic, some experts are predicting not a lot of companies will even bid on these leases.
RYAN SCHLEETER: That’s a great question, because when this was first put to the current Congress in 2017, the oil industry and the oil market looked a lot different. So, Chevron and BP, for example, were two of the biggest companies within the last three years that expressed interest in drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and those companies are in very different places now than when they expressed that interest. So, BP announced plans earlier this year that it is going to reduce oil and gas production by 40 percent by 2030, so it’s really hard to see them meeting that goal while expanding into the Alaskan Arctic. And Chevron had to write down its assets earlier this year and lost billions of dollars and said it was going to make some contractions in where it was looking to expand and explore new business, so that also makes exploration in the Alaskan Arctic for Chevron a lot less likely.
So those are two of the bigger companies, but smaller and midsize companies have been hit even harder by the market downturn so it’s really hard to imagine any oil company actually bidding on these lease sales right now and trying to explore, given how contentious this location is, the potential delays, all of that, so it wouldn’t be the first time Trump’s climate or environmental policy or economic policy sort of flew in the face of what reality and the market and the science is saying. But it’s definitely not a guarantee that any oil companies would even bid on this or pursue it.
MELINDA TUHUS: So, Ryan Schleeter, do you think maybe throwing so much energy into stopping this is misdirected and environmentalists should focus on other crises?
RYAN SCHLEETER: Well, we definitely need to treat it seriously, because it’s not just the prospect of drilling in the Arctic Refuge, it’s the idea that if oil companies can unlock this place that’s been protected for so many decades and that holds such cultural significance, really no protected area is off-limits. So this is the precedent we cannot allow to be set. And I do think we should take the threats of the Trump administration when it comes to support for the fossil fuel industry seriously because he’s shown time and again that his words are not empty and they often come with action. So if he says he wants to open this area to drilling and he wants oil companies to pursue it, we need to treat that as the threat that it is.
MELINDA TUHUS: What’s the timeline, anyway?
RYAN SCHLEETER: The earliest auctions would not be until after the election. This could also be a part of an electoral strategy to signify to fossil fuel industry donors that supported Trump that he is willing to go as far as trying to open up the Arctic Refuge, which is a battle they’ve been waging for decades, but it wouldn’t be til later this year.
MELINDA TUHUS: It was Congress that had to vote on opening or not opening ANWR to drilling. Biden has said he’s opposed to drilling there. What impact could his election have on drilling there?
RYAN SCHLEETER: Yeah, it absolutely does, because, like I said, the Department of the Interior would oversee the lease sales, and even if Congress weren’t to reverse the budgetary decision that made lease sales possible in the Arctic Refuge, a Biden administration and Cabinet could just not hold lease sales essentially, is one way it could work out. Another way it could work out is that Congress could reverse that law and make drilling off-limits. There’s a number of routes. We expect to see legal challenges, even within the next couple of months to the Trump administration decision. So, maneuvering through the courts has been a lot of what has stopped a lot of Trump anti-environment deregulatory agenda from actually going into effect. So there are still a number of ways this could be stopped whether Biden is president or Trump is re-elected.
MELINDA TUHUS: Please comment on the climate impacts of opening ANWR to drilling.
RYAN SCHLEETER: Yeah, I will say that from a climate perspective it’s never made sense to drill in the Arctic Refuge. A study that came out in 2015 – five years ago – said that if we’re going to limit global warming to the agreed-upon goals of the Paris Agreement, 100 percent of Arctic oil and gas needs to stay in the ground. And over the last six months from an economic perspective, it’s starting to make even less sense. So this decision isn’t motivated by anything related to science or economics. This is very much a statement to Trump’s donor base and to his friends in the fossil fuel industry that regardless of what reality suggests, he’s going to continue to work for them and against the interests of people across the country, including in Alaska.
For more on efforts to stop drilling in ANWR, visit Greenpeace USA’s website at greenpeace.org.