Greedy visions of drilling in the Arctic are a cold sell

Leading into the Presidential election, the Trump Administration announced it had finalized plans to open 1.5 million acres of the pristine coastal region of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas exploration, with the Bureau of Land Management releasing a proposal to begin a seismic survey in December.

The announcement heralded the culmination of plans that crystalized in 2017 when Congress passed a tax measure that included a provision – more like a gift — to win the vote of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. The provision lifted protections aimed at preserving the Refuge’s diverse wildlife, including polar bears and caribou, a wide variety of birds and more than 270 species, that had been in place for six decades.

The 2017 law requires that the federal government conduct two lease sales of 400,000 acres each by December 2024.

Lease sales in the area could result in the release of 4.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which is equal to three-fourths of U.S. annual emissions, according to the Center for American Progress.

But while some energy advocates may gleefully applaud the plans, there’s no clear indication there’s really going to be much action and that the announcement was nothing more than shoring up a policy on the Refuge’s shoreline to garner headlines. The deadline for the first lease sale isn’t actually until December 2021 and between now and then there is a myriad of reasons there may not be a rush to plunder America’s last magnificent wild lands.

First, two thirds of the American public oppose drilling in the refuge, according to a poll by Yale University. And that sentiment has weight.

The unpopularity of drilling in the Arctic has moved some financial hearts and minds as well, including several big banks that have sworn off financing oil exploration there because it flies in the face of their climate change commitments to reduce greenhouse gasses.

The nation’s biggest banks including Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs have renounced financial support for companies who want to dive into drilling in the Arctic Refuge. In October, the Royal Bank of Canada, that country’s largest bank, ruled out financing for drilling projects. RBC had faced criticism as the biggest funder of fossil fuel development in Canada.

Also in October, the scions of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Sr. and JDR Jr (who invested in banks) issued a challenge to financial institutions “to move beyond the profits of fossil fuels to develop banking models that will excel in a zero-carbon world.”

There is also not much information on exactly how much oil is available in the region because there haven’t been geological surveys conducted in decades, making it a risky business decision.

In addition, the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shut down of businesses across the globe has also led to a dramatic drop in oil prices and glut in supply, as have climate change policies that have more countries snubbing fossil fuels and looking to alternative energy sources instead.

“The rushed process the agency is pursuing is incompatible with protecting the fragile environment of the Coastal Plain,’’ FoA’s Wildlife Law Program Director Mike Harris said in the comments filed earlier this year with the Bureau of Land Management regarding an environmental impact statement on oil exploration. “We are confident that a thorough and robust review of the impacts of oil and gas activities would demonstrate that an oil and gas program is simply incompatible and inconsistent with protecting wildlife. We cannot allow this process to continue and risk all the Refuge has to offer.”

In 2019, the Democratically controlled House passed legislation banning drilling in the Refuge and members of the House Natural Resources Committee have recently challenged a biological opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of drilling.

“The proposed oil and gas leasing program for the Coastal Plain has suffered from reckless haste, irresponsible public process and lack of transparency,’’ the Democratic members wrote in a letter to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

As we headed to press, there is this added hope as well: Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden has vowed to permanently protect the refuge.

“The efforts by the Trump administration to wreck one of our nation’s most important wild habitats has met with difficulty at every pass,’’ said FoA President Priscilla Feral. “As long as we continue to stand up for wildlife we will thwart even the most egregious attempts by greedy energy companies to destroy unique and precious ecosystems.”