The Trump administration is trampling on the Arctic on its way out. On Wednesday, the Bureau of Land Management will auction off the drilling rights for plots on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain on its eastern North Slope, an area currently untouched by developers. The move will encourage more oil and gas development at a time when scientists have made it clear that we must halt all fossil fuel production to halt catastrophic climate change.
“Trump rushing through these lease sales as a final handout to his cronies in the oil and gas industry is outrageous, if not surprising,” Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Watch, wrote in an emailed statement. “Trump’s consistent, willful ignorance of the realities of climate change has pushed our planet towards decades of increasing climate chaos.”
The auction is being held despite widespread pushback from Indigenous groups and environmental organisers. In August, 13 groups sued the federal government in an attempt to stop the sale, arguing that the bureau didn’t conduct adequate environmental reviews. But on Tuesday night, their last-ditch effort failed, when a district court judge ruled that the organisations had not shown enough evidence of likely harm for her to grant an injunction.
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To make matters even worse, in a last-minute decision on Monday, the Bureau of Land Management announced a plan to open up 23 million acres of the western North Slope for fossil fuel development. The vast expansion will mean a total of 18.6 million acres — or about 80% — of the pristine refuge will be open for business.
Both the western and eastern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge plots are home to threatened species and Native communities who will be put at risk by the fossil fuel industry’s machinery. The coastal plain lands set for Wednesday’s auction are home to some 900 polar bears, as well as 200,000 migrating Porcupine caribou who spend their summers in the region, which the people of the Gwich’in Nation rely on for food and cultural ceremonies.
Similarly, the region opened up on Monday includes Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake in Alaska’s Arctic that is a safe haven for migrating birds and wildlife, including up to 100,000 geese, 600,000 shorebirds, denning polar bears, and tens of thousands of caribou. The lake is also sacred to the region’s Native Inupiat people, who rely on it for food. Dangers to human and nonhuman residents alike could also be exacerbated if drilling in either region results in a spill.
Thankfully, the land may not have many takers. Demand for oil and gas, after all, is crashing amid the pandemic, and companies are also facing difficulty in obtaining financing to drill. As of last month, every major U.S. bank has ruled out funding fossil fuel development in the Arctic. At least one entity, however, has expressed interest in buying up leases: Last week, the New York Times reported that the state of Alaska is vying to buy up plots in the coastal plain.
If anyone — including the state of Alaska — does buy up the leases, they won’t be easy for the Biden administration to take back. Officials can, however, enact policies to discourage drilling on Arctic lands. Chief among those, said Jones, is a ban on fracking and other forms of extraction on public lands, which the president-elect has promised to pass. “This is a step he can, and must, take upon taking office,” Jones said.