By RENEE WANG
A vast area of coastal lands, boreal forests and alpine plains: all shelters for an array of wildlife from the Porcupine Caribou to the endangered Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears. Each now the victim of deadly extermination fueled by human greed and the potential prospect of oil.
On Aug. 17, the Trump administration finalized its plans to open drilling in a part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. Known as a long-time goal for the Republican Party, the year Americans have described as “eventful” will most likely end with an auction held by the Alaska federal government for leases to drill gas and oil.
In a scurry to oppose this plan, members of Alaska’s indigenous communities and environmental groups have filed lawsuits to block the leasing. However, with the majority of investments targeted towards the pandemic and 2020 election, the leasing will most likely occur, and once again, the environment remains on the bottom of every policy maker's list.
Regardless of how impacted the refuge will be, the U.S. is intentionally increasing the speed of climate change because of the Republican interest in flexing the “American energy dominance.” In other words, Trump plans to open the area to drilling to allow companies to buy leases that permit them to search for gas and oil, boosting the economy and “bulk up” the treasury. COVID-19 has forced many preservation groups into a corner: they are lacking funds and organizers yet still must face this new issue.
In context, President Donald Trump has always played an active role in pushing Arctic drilling ever since the Reagan administration initially brought up the refuge as a profitable source of energy in 1987. However, the idea has remained relatively dormant because of disapproval from Democratic lawmakers. Since Trump’s presidency, the plan has progressed drastically within a year. Most notably, with the passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, which made it legal for the U.S. government to drill on the coastal plains. This allows oil and gas companies to build production and support facilities for up to about 2,000 acres of coastal land for operations.
Interestingly, the timing of the completed plan remains questionable as many groups are unavailable to rally or bring this issue to the attention of mainstream media due to COVID-19.
However, it also adds to the mystery around why the Trump Administration decided to finalize plans of drilling when the nation is at a time where oil prices are at an all-time low. Nevertheless, it has always been clear that the Trump Administration’s goal is to boost the economy, and by attracting rich oil companies with this auction, both the U.S. government and Alaska’s Congressional Delegation can achieve their goals. Coincidentally, the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau Land Management Secretary, a position that manages 20 percent of U.S. land and a firm supporter of this plan, is a fossil fuel lobbyist.
Elected on Apr. 11, 2019 and nominated by Donald Trump himself, David Bernhardt was a controversial nominee as he had made many policy changes that benefited his former clients. One such example included his proposal on behalf of his former clients, the Westlands Water District, to weaken the Endangered Species Act protections for the finger-sized fish, delta smelt, in order to reroute the river water.
Despite his objection to the claims that he had gruesomely violated ethics, it is undeniable that his previous job as a lobbyist for the Westlands Water District has earned his former firm $1.3 million in five years. As it is now, Bernhardt is one of the key figures behind the proposal followed by Alaska’s Republican Congressional Delegation consisting of Senator Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.
Furthermore, Bernhardt is not the only non-environmental person to go into a respectable pro-environment group.
In addition to oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, Trump has also nominated the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, an ex-coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler. As a result, it seems the only protectors of the ANWR are the people. However, as this issue is offset by the current on-going election, the ANWR is left vulnerable to the money-loving government.
Although some would argue that the leasing for drilling oil would increase hundreds of jobs and boost Alaska’s stagnant economy, the Arctic circle is already at a state where it recorded its highest ever temperature this year. The Interior Department concluded that extra precautions will be made during the drilling in order to minimize the impact on the environment. The ANWR Coastal Plain draft environmental impact study failed to include oil spill response plans, effects of climate change in the Arctic and the preservation of polar bears denning habitats, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service
In addition, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, the lease sales would cause the release of over 4.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over the projected area. Bernhardt himself even claimed that operations could last for about half a century.
At this point, fighting for the new Green Bill is relevant, however, what is at stake here is more than the percentage of fossil fuel usage but rather the entire future of the Arctic itself.
Essentially, the details of the plan up all of the coastal plains, a general nursery ground for polar bears, into an oil field. Already suffering from the effects of climate change, the overall polar bear population has declined by 50 percent since 1980 — currently at a total of 900. The ANWR is also the birthing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd, and more than 200 bird species consider the area it’s home. While the U.S. government attempts to justify the lease sales by assuring well-built oil pipes and well pads, it is explicit that the U.S. government has no plans to improve the increasingly endangered wildlife.
While it is cliche to use the “power of social media,” the phrase covers what the ANWR needs the most right now: media coverage. It is essential that this lease does not get passed or it will affect the global climate of hundreds of species in the near future. We might be looking at a world without polar bears. Or worse, no world at all.