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Trump sold off the Arctic Refuge — Congress must end this boondoggle

Finis The Hill Cover

Republicans opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling in 2017, but Congress still has the power and the opportunity to reverse this disastrous Trump-era policy.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill

By: Finis Dunaway

On his first day in office last year, President Biden issued an executive order to pause all oil and gas activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The order provided a temporary reprieve from fossil fuel development, but Congress must act now to end the Trump drilling program for good.

Two weeks before Biden made this announcement, the first-ever lease sale of the Arctic Refuge revealed what everyone knew all along: there was never any sound fiscal argument for selling off this land. On Jan. 6, 2021, as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned off drilling rights for about 500,000 acres of the refuge’s coastal plain. The sale netted the federal treasury a paltry $6 million dollars in revenue. That’s $12 an acre.

Let that sink in. Twelve dollars an acre for land that has been protected by the federal government since 1960; for land that has sustained and been stewarded by Indigenous peoples since time immemorial; for land that the vast majority of Americans has repeatedly said should be safeguarded as a wildlife refuge, not turned into an industrialized oil field.

Congress has the power to reverse this disastrous Trump-era policy. While slimmed down from its original version, the climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act would still make an historic investment in addressing climate change and, crucially, would revoke all current leases and repeal the Arctic Refuge oil program. And since drilling proponents used budget reconciliation in 2017 to launch the oil and gas leasing program, this process offers a procedurally justifiable vehicle to spare the Arctic Refuge from fossil fuel development—and to stop this risky financial investment from going forward.

The only reason the Arctic Refuge leasing program became part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was that drilling proponents claimed that it would bring in revenue to offset the bill’s massive tax cuts. Even by their own estimates, though, the promised amount paled in comparison to the budget-draining impact of the tax plan. According to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and others, the leasing program would generate just over $1 billion—a miniscule fraction of the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts.

Yet Murkowski knew that even this small sum represented a wildly inflated estimate. She admitted as much when, in 2019, the House Appropriations Committee passed a measure that would require minimum bids to ensure the program generated the projected revenue. Murkowski balked, charging that such a provision would “kill exploration” in the Arctic Refuge, while Trump officials argued that the measure would set “unnecessary and unrealistic restrictions” on lease sales. From the outset, the false promises of fiscal responsibility were nothing more than a cover to push through a hugely unpopular and environmentally reckless drilling plan.

Indeed, it would be impossible to itemize or account for all that would be lost if fossil fuel development proceeded on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. A biological nursery of transnational and global significance, this area nurtures an incredible community of life. Millions of birds migrate from across the United States and around the world, seeking sustenance and a place to replenish their populations. The coastal plain also provides denning sites for polar bears, all the more critical as climate change dramatically alters Arctic lands and waters. The list of species could go on, but the simple question remains: can a dollar value be assigned to the loss of life that would ensue, to the devastation of ecological communities that live and thrive in the coastal plain?

The monetary calculation of value also disregards Indigenous rights to justify colonial extraction. For thousands of years, the Gwich’in people, who live in communities dotted across northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada, have relied upon and cared for the Porcupine caribou herd. Currently numbering over 200,000 animals, this herd migrates to the Arctic coastal plain to have their young. Because this land has been shielded from development, the Porcupine herd is one of the only caribou herds in North America not currently undergoing a catastrophic decline. But, if the caribou calving grounds ever became an oil field, the impact on the Porcupine herd—and on Gwich’in culture, identity, and food security—would be incalculable. It would amount, as Gwich’in leaders have testified, to cultural genocide.

Climate change is already wrecking havoc on Arctic ecosystems—shifting animal migration patterns, threatening fish populations, and creating dangerous conditions for people who hunt and fish on their ancestral lands. Drilling the refuge would only exacerbate its effects on lands and waters that sustain Gwich’in, Iñupiat, and other Indigenous communities. And the impact would extend well beyond the Arctic, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and undermining the nation’s effort to address the climate crisis.

Congress has the opportunity to repeal the leases and put an end to the drilling program. To fulfill the promises made at the COP26 climate summit, the United States must close the chapter on this misguided boondoggle and undo the damage done during the Trump administration. By restoring protections to the Arctic Refuge, Congress can help create a more just, sustainable future—for wildlife, for Arctic Indigenous peoples, and for everyone facing the fierce urgency of a warming planet.

Finis Dunaway is professor of history at Trent University. He is the author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images, which received the John G. Cawelti Award from the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association and the History Division Book Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. His recent book is Defending the Arctic Refuge: A Photographer, an Indigenous Nation, and a Fight for Environmental Justice (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). You can find out more about the book (and see a recently-digitized version of The Last Great Wilderness show) on the book’s companion website. Find him on Twitter here.