Trump’s OPEC gambit exposes folly of Arctic drilling

(This piece originally appeared in The Hill.) Upended oil markets have turned America’s energy policy on its head.

Until now, every president since Richard Nixon has fought OPEC’s manipulation of oil prices through their supply controls.

After OPEC abandoned tight supply constraints in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan heralded the plunge in oil prices as “a triumph not of government, but of the free market; and not of political leaders, but of freedom itself.”

As Trump now pleads with OPEC to curb global oil production, he should be pausing his administration’s rush to lease off America’s public lands and waters to oil companies. Instead, the rush to lease new lands is picking up speed, even as oil companies have unleashed their lobbyists to seek taxpayer bailouts, including a massive handout in the form of suspending payments for oil and gas royalties.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is perhaps the most iconic illustration of the disjointed pretzel that America’s energy policy has become.

First protected from drilling by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, the Trump administration is now poised at any moment to take the next steps to issue the first ever drilling rights to oil companies on these wild lands famed for their wildlife and essential to the wellbeing of Indigenous people in the region.

And though GOP leaders and the president argued it would raise billions for the treasury, these leases will instead likely go for peanuts — federal taxpayers could see as little as $9 to 14 million in revenue from two planned lease sales in the Arctic Refuge — given the current economic conditions. But someone will buy them on the cheap and dictate the fate of America’s last great wilderness, even though Americans overwhelmingly oppose the move.

This is the worst kind of profiteering during a pandemic. Oil companies want to hoard new rights to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge even as they shut down operations on the vast untapped oil reserves they already have access to.

There simply is no serious energy policy justification that stands up to scrutiny given the over-abundance of oil in the world. Instead, the rush to drill America’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge is being pursued to satisfy a muscle-flexing display of presidential bravado and oil lobbyist clout.

This process has been rushed and corrupted from the start. A provision to allow Arctic drilling was jammed into Trump’s 2017 tax bill because the measure could never have passed Congress on its own.

“Who cares,” Trump recalled telling a friend when asked whether Arctic drilling was in the tax bill. That buddy, who Trump identified as being in the oil business, explained that it was a big deal because Reagan and the Bushes tried and failed to get it.

“You gotta be kidding. I love it now,” was Trump’s response. “And after that we fought like hell to get ANWR. He talked me into it.”

This from a president who has touted a new “golden era of American energy.”

Like King Midas’ golden touch, the hidden cost of this golden era is now plain to see.

For decades, American consumers were once at the mercy of global oil supply disruptions. Now, America’s oil producers and workers are at the mercy of global demand disruptions

In the face of global oversupply, the oil extraction industry is shedding jobs. New exploration has ground to a halt.

This sudden crash is devastating for the workers and communities. They won’t be helped by selling off new rights to oil companies for Arctic drilling. Increasing supply does not fix oversupply problems.

Proponents of Arctic drilling may argue that we should look beyond the current crash and think long-term. After all, the most optimistic estimates don’t have oil from the Arctic Refuge hitting markets before 2030, with peak production occurring in 2040 at the earliest.

But that argument crashes head-long into another reality: Sharp reductions in global oil consumption will be needed in coming years in order to meet global goals for containing climate change. While the oversupply squeeze may ease in coming years, the relief, if any, will be temporary.

We will need all the tools in the toolbox to fight climate change. Nowhere else in America are fish and wildlife at greater risk from climate change than in Alaska. Protecting Alaska’s wild places should be at the vanguard of any climate plan because it simultaneously keeps emissions out of the atmosphere and provides healthier, more resilient habitat for fish and wildlife to survive the Arctic’s rapid changes.

It’s time for President Trump to sideline any plans to lease this iconic national treasure. Failing that, Congress should revoke the 2017 Refuge drilling scheme, stopping the giveaway of the crown jewel of America’s public lands to oil interests at the expense of our natural heritage and clean energy future.

There is no better time to save America’s last great wild places from drilling.