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There is a Chance to Save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Our call to be good stewards of God’s earth and to care for one another is under threat in many places, but none more notable than Alaska. For the first time, oil drilling will be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located in the northern part of Alaska. This breathtaking parcel of God’s creation, home to the Gwich’in people, is unique in its wilderness qualities and ecological integrity, where natural processes remain mostly uninfluenced by people.

But for all its unique beauty and its importance for wildlife, some policymakers and oil companies have continued to urge Congress to open this national treasure to oil exploration and drilling. Oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Refuge will not only violate the human rights of the Gwich’in people but will continue to contribute to the climate crisis, which threatens the health and wellbeing of all of us. 

Development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would also sacrifice the land that the Gwich’in hold as sacred.

In a study, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that oil development would harm wildlife and habitats in numerous ways, with the Porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic Refuge the most vulnerable to human-caused and natural stresses. With the threats of oil development in their calving grounds, it is virtually certain that the size of the herd would be gravely diminished, effectively ending the Gwich’in way of life, which for 30,000 years has relied on the Porcupine caribou for much of their food. Development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would also sacrifice the land that the Gwich’in hold as sacred.

Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine has said, “I believe we can create an energy policy that will provide sufficient energy to meet the needs of today and of future generations without compromising America’s environmentally sensitive areas. With this in mind, I have opposed efforts to open areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Georges Bank off the coast of Maine to drilling,” she wrote in a letter to a constituent.

Repealing the mandate to lease in the Arctic Refuge through the current budget reconciliation process is the most important action Congress can take right now to ensure that the rights, culture, and sacred lands of Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples remain intact.

The results were surprising.

Republicans tried to use the budget reconciliation a total of five times to open the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas exploration. After President Trump proposed opening up the Arctic Refuge to drilling in 2017, they successfully did so through the 2017 Tax Act, which resulted in the creation of a drilling program and two mandated lease sales – one in 2020 and one in 2024. 

After Congress approved selling leases, the Trump administration, on August 17, 2020, finalized its plan to open up part of the Arctic Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas development, a move that overturns six decades of protecting the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.

On January 6, 2021, the Trump administration held the first lease sale for tracts on the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, and the results were surprising. No major oil companies showed up to bid and only nine tracts were sold out of 22 offered. Seven of the nine leases awarded went to an Alaska state entity that had never bid on oil leases before and the sale generated a mere $12 million—only 1% of the projected revenue—with half of that paid back to Alaska.

Restore protections for the Arctic Refuge, a very special piece of God’s creation.

Several realities probably influenced the poor showing of fossil fuel companies at the lease sale. First, the future economic viability of fossil fuels is in question. Many automobile companies like General Motors have stated that they will only make electric vehicles after 2035 and most nations are committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions at least by 2050. Second, financing oil exploration and drilling has become harder with most of the large banks declaring that they will not lend money for drilling in the Arctic.

Despite the fact that the first lease sale was an absolute failure, a second lease sale is still mandated by law for 2024. 

Congress is poised to pass a budget reconciliation package, which will likely include a robust climate response. It will be important that language included in the budget reconciliation bill rescinds the requirement that another lease sale be held in 2024.

Reversing the drilling program that Trump began is key to preserving the sacred place that is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Budget reconciliation is the ideal legislative vehicle—and our best chance—to restore protections for the Arctic Refuge, a very special piece of God’s creation. The stakes are high.

Learn more about the history of advocacy in this region through this interesting talk.  

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