House spending bill includes wins for Alaska conservation

Last week saw some huge conservation wins as the U.S. House of Representatives passed its 2021 Interior and Environment spending bill.

While this type of legislation can seem dense and complicated, the spending bill provides important opportunities for protecting public lands and waters, with several important provisions specifically aimed at the amazing public lands and waters of Alaska.

This year’s bill contains language that would set minimum bid requirements for an oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, end federal timber subsidies that promote old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest, and stop new oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic Ocean. It also includes amendments that would defund a lease sale in the Arctic Refuge, defund leasing in areas currently protected in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Reserve), and defund a recent Trump administration National Park Service final rule allowing the killing of hibernating bears and wolf and coyote pups in their dens in Alaska national preserves.

Arctic Refuge minimum bids would hold the Trump administration accountable

The Arctic Refuge was opened for oil and gas leasing in 2017 as part of the massive Republican Tax Act, and at the time, the only reason that proponents of drilling were able to include the provision in the bill was because they promised that leases would generate $1 billion of revenue for the U.S. Treasury. The Arctic Refuge language in this year’s spending bill would require that there be a minimum bid set that is capable of generating that revenue. The provision would only allow a lease sale to occur if it ensures it will raise those funds. By requiring a floor for what companies must pay to lease in the Arctic Refuge, this provision simply holds the Trump administration accountable and guarantees taxpayers the revenue they were promised.

Despite the billion-dollar promise, at the time the tax bill passed, expert estimates showed a range of more realistic numbers ranging from $20-45 million — less than 5% of the promised revenue. Three years later, decreasing prices and massive surpluses of oil have created the lowest demand in decades. Prices have hit rock bottom, as low as negative $40 a barrel. This makes the likelihood of a lease sale raising the required revenue an even more outlandish proposal.

The bottom line is that oil and gas leasing should never have been mandated in the Arctic Refuge. Planned development on the coastal plain would be on the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, a critical subsistence resource for the Gwich’in people and their traditional way of life. Development would also threaten other species including polar bears who use the coastal plain for denning habitat, and as sea ice decreases polar bears are even more dependent on remaining onshore habitat.

(Steven Kazlowski / Akook Arctic Adventures)

Ending Tongass timber subsidies would save American taxpayers millions each year

Meanwhile, in the Tongass National Forest, subsidies to the timber industry for new roadbuilding have already cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. During the past twenty years, the average yearly loss has been $30 million — that equals more than half a billion dollars spent keeping the timber industry buzzing along on clear-cuts in America’s largest national forest, home to more brown bears and bald eagles than anywhere else in the U.S. The Tongass is one key to our nation’s climate future, with a carbon sink that stores more than 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and sequesters an additional 3 million metric tons annually.

This year’s House Interior and Environment bill included a provision that ends these roadbuilding subsidies for timber sales in the Tongass. This provision would end millions of American tax dollars being spent subsidizing the timber industry in Alaska and, in the process, stop damaging an international treasure that attracts hunters, fishermen and tourists from around the world.

Ending offshore leasing in the Arctic Ocean would eliminate threat of environmental risks

The offshore drilling provision of this year’s House Interior and Environment bill would prevent any leasing activities from occurring in new areas of the Arctic Ocean. This is especially important as the Trump administration’s proposed five-year offshore drilling plan includes six oil and gas lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas of the Arctic Ocean.

As existing leases continue to be relinquished, the threat of potential oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean continues to decline. This provision would stop the threat of any new leasing in the Arctic Ocean, along with the associated risks that come with drilling. In 2015, the Department of the Interior released a report that concluded proposed drilling in the Chukchi Sea posed a 75% chance of an oil spill greater than 1,000 barrels. Such a spill would have long lasting impacts on Arctic wildlife and the Alaska Native communities whose traditional cultures rely upon them for subsistence.

Amendments further protect Alaska public lands

Along with the provisions included in the text were three key amendments that provide even further protections for Alaska:

  • Another win for the Arctic Refuge, Rep. Jared Huffman’s (D-CA) amendment would prevent the Trump administration from moving forward toward a lease sale on a coastal plain during the next year. This is yet another important piece of this bill that recognizes the fact that the Arctic Refuge should never have been opened to drilling, something the House voted last year to reverse with Representative Huffman and Fitzpatrick’s (R-PA) bipartisan legislation.
  • Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) introduced an amendment that would defund oil and gas leasing in designated Special Areas of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Currently, approximately 11 million acres of the 23-million-acre Reserve are protected from oil and gas development, but the Trump administration is in the process of increasing the number of acres available for oil development to approximately 18 million acres, or 80% of the Reserve. One of Reserve’s at-risk Special Areas is the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, which is critical for millions of migratory birds — the lake and its surrounding wetlands are designated as globally significant Important Bird Areas. The Trump administration’s preferred management plan would entirely eliminate protections for Teshekpuk Lake; however, this amendment would keep those protections in place.
  • The Trump administration also recently announced new rules for national preserves in Alaska that would allow the killing of bear sows and cubs while they hibernate and the shooting of wolves and coyotes and their pups while they are denning. An amendment by Reps. Jayapal (D-WA), Blumenauer (D-OR), and Fitzpatrick (R-PA) would prevent funds from being used to implement this rule. These state-endorsed practices are designed to reduce and manipulate predator populations to allow for increased human sport hunting, which runs contrary to wildlife management objectives and laws on federal public lands.
Bears cubs in Denali National Park and Preserve. (National Park Service)