You’ve seen this headline before, or at least some version of it. The controversy surrounding oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been ongoing for 40 years.

This time around, it comes in the form of carefully worded provisions in the 2018 fiscal year budget. On October 5, the House passed a budget that includes an assumed $5 billion in revenue from oil and gas development leases over the next ten years and instructs the House Natural Resources Committee to devise a plan to generate the money—a thinly veiled suggestion that they find a way to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. The Senate Budget Plan employs a similar tactic. A budget resolution draft released September 29 instructed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to scrounge $1 billion in deficit savings through oil and gas development, subtly instructing the committee to find a way to open the pristine landscape to drilling.

“There is bipartisan opposition to drilling in our nation’s most pristine wildlife refuge and any effort to include it in the tax package would only further imperil the legislation as a whole. I will fight vigorously on the Senate floor to remove this extraneous giveaway to Big Oil from the budget and protect this special place,” said Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.). In April, the senator introduced a bill with 39 other senators that would designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, protecting the land from future development.


Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a longtime supporter of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said of the initiative, “This provides an excellent opportunity for our committee to raise $1 billion in federal revenues while creating jobs and strengthening our nation’s long-term energy security.” In January, Murkowski and Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) introduced a bill that would open the ANWR to drilling. In May, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed a secretarial order designed to “jump-start” oil production in Alaska, specifically in the ANWR.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans 19.6 million acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness. The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act created the refuge as it exists today. It’s divided into three sections: 8 million acres of true wilderness, protected from development according to the Wilderness Act of 1964; 9.1 million minimally managed acres added to the refuge in 1980 that operate as a typical U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-run refuge; and the 1002 area, 1.5 million acres of coastal plain that caught the eye of oil and gas interests.

The bill placed the 1.5 million acres in limbo, mandating that surveys of wildlife and prospective oil and gas resources precede any decision about drilling. It explicitly banned drilling in the area without congressional approval. Cue the decades-long battle between politicians tied to oil and gas interests and those with a more planet-friendly bent.


There have been several close calls. In 1989, a bill to open the area to drilling was successful, but was thwarted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 1996, a Republican majority House and Senate voted for drilling, but the legislation was vetoed by President Bill Clinton. Efforts to designate the area wilderness and protect it from development have never gotten off the ground.

A 2006 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the 1002 area is more biodiverse than any similarly sized area in Alaska’s North Slope. The coastal plain is critical habitat to the 197,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd. The caribou roam throughout the year, seeking food and safety across a swath of unforgiving terrain the size of Wyoming. In the winter, they move to the southern reaches of the refuge, where they are a critical food source of the Gwich’in people who live in Arctic Village, a remote town on the border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (and surrounded by it on three sides.) In the spring, calving season calls for stability, and the threatened coastal plain—hundreds of miles north of Arctic Village—is this herd’s annual calving ground. Development in the region would displace the herd, pressing them further into the foothills and making them more vulnerable to predation.

Though studies of the area’s wildlife habitat definitively show a fragile and diverse tundra ecosystem, research about oil and gas prospects in the area has been less conclusive. A 2008 report by the US Department of Energy cited “considerable uncertainty regarding both the size and quality of the oil resource that exist in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Thus, the potential ultimate oil recovery and potential yearly production are highly uncertain.”

Estimates from the 1980s and 1990s placed potential oil much higher than the 2008 study found. Much of what were thought to be oil reserves turned out to be natural gas. By 2030, the potential oil production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be between 0.4 and 1.2 percent of total world production, which is not enough to impact global oil markets or prices.

The Gwich’in people strongly oppose oil and gas development in the area. Jonathon Soloman, a member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, stated that “the future of the Gwich’in and the future of the Caribou are the same. We cannot stand by and let them sell our children’s heritage to the oil companies.”

The Inupiat population of Kaktovik, a town inside the 1002 area and the only town inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are also outspoken against drilling in the area, stating that it would disrupt and potentially destroy their lifestyle. Food prices in the remote village are astronomical—a Fortune article published in September placed a pound of meat at $27 and a loaf of white bread at $6—and the majority of their livelihood and food comes directly from the land. Disrupting the fragile habitat with oil and gas development could be catastrophic to the area food chain.

Hundreds of other indigenous tribes in Alaska, Canada, and the continental United States, have spoken out against oil and gas development on the coastal plain. It’s a human rights and a native rights issue. The 1002 area completely surrounds a comparatively small tract of native land that would be irreparably changed by development.

The issue spans cultural and party lines. A December 2016 poll by the Center for American Progress found that 43 percent of Trump voters and 87 percent of Clinton voters oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It also raises broader questions about the purpose of public lands and the intentions of the government agents and agencies that oversee them. According to the 1980 act that created the refuge, the four purposes of the refuge were “to conserve fish and wildlife population and habitats in their natural diversity; to fulfill the international fish and wildlife treaty obligations of the United States; to provide the opportunity for continued subsistence uses by local residents; and to ensure water quality and necessary water quantity within the refuge.” The stated mission of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages all National Wildlife Refuges, is “working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

Photo from the Steven Chase/USFWS

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