President Donald Trump’s administration on Monday finalized a sweeping plan to open Alaska’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling ― a move that would forever transform one of America’s last true wild places.
“It’s not the end of the leasing process, but it is a very, very significant milestone,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist, said in a statement to media.
The refuge, often described as “America’s Serengeti,” covers more than 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. The region is home to polar bears, caribou, moose and hundreds of species of migratory birds, and for decades the coastal plain, known as the “1002 Area,” has been a battleground between energy companies and conservationists.
Republicans have tried for decades to open the area for oil and gas extraction, and the GOP tax law passed by Congress in late 2017 included a provision, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), that requires the Interior Department to approve at least two lease sales for drilling — each covering no less than 400,000 acres.
“We may or may not do it,” Trump told “Fox & Friends” in a Monday morning interview, as if aware of how unpopular doing so would be. “We are looking at different things in Alaska. I’ve been very good to Alaska.”
“In theory, I should go down as a great environmental president,” he added.
In reality, Trump has an absolutely abysmal environmental record. And he has spent August working to greenwash it ahead of the 2020 election. Upon signing into law a major public lands package earlier this month, he touted himself as a conservationist in the mold of late President Theodore Roosevelt ― a claim that has no basis in fact.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign responded to Monday’s news by reaffirming Biden’s commitment to protect the refuge if elected to the White House in November. The former vice president pledged to permanently safeguard the area as part of the climate plan he released last year.
“Biden has outlined robust, ambitious, and actionable plans to lead us through a clean energy revolution that creates millions of good-paying, union jobs and protects national treasures and the local economies they support,” campaign spokesman Matt Hill said in a statement.
Environmental groups responded to Monday’s news with outrage.
“Our climate is in crisis, oil prices have cratered, and major banks are pulling out of Arctic financing right and left,” Adam Kolton, executive director at Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “And yet the Trump administration continues its race to liquidate our nation’s last great wilderness, putting at risk the indigenous peoples and iconic wildlife that depend on it.”
The administration can expect numerous legal challenges.
“America has safeguarded the refuge for decades, and we will not allow the administration to strip that protection away now,” Gina McCarthy, president of Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a Monday statement.