In a blatantly cynical ploy to undo 35 years of preservation, the Republican controlled Congress in 2017 buried a provision in the GOP’s tax-cut bill to open portions of the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Never mind that the only people in the country backing the idea were energy companies, the politicians who do their bidding and the people who profit from them. In fact, a poll taken shortly after the vote found that only 35% of Americans supported opening ANWR to drilling.
President Trump, of course, and his political appointees at the Interior Department are among that 35% eager to despoil the near-pristine preserve that provides vital habitat for caribou, polar bears and other species of the north. Proponents note that the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act designated a section known as the 1002 area as a site for future drilling should Congress approve it. But that’s a far cry from saying it must be open for drilling, and the balance of interests tilts decidedly toward leaving the region alone.
Yet recent reports indicate that officials in the Trump administration, some of whom came straight out of the industries from which they are supposed to be protecting the environment, have been rushing to auction off leases — no doubt with an eye to the election calendar and the current president’s poll numbers. If there’s any good news to be found in the speeded-up process, it’s that in their haste the paperwork has reportedly been so badly botched that legal challenges will likely succeed.
In pushing to open ANWR to drilling, the Trump administration estimated two years ago that it would earn the federal government $1.8 billion in lease sales by 2027. The Congressional Budget Office said a few months later that it would be more like $1.1 billion; it has since reduced its estimate to $900 million. But a recent New York Times analysis put the likely federal revenue at $45 million, and the Taxpayers for Common Sense group put it even lower — about $20 million. Regardless of which of the numbers is correct, it’s a relatively paltry sum in return for significant risk of irreversible damage to a remote region that is crucial to so many species.
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Further, humankind must move away from relying on oil and other fossil fuels for energy. Expanding the amount of public lands that can be leased for oil production is against the nation’s long-term interests. The U.S. already is the world’s largest producer of oil; adding new oil from Alaska is not necessary for the economy and will just make it harder to achieve the reductions of carbon emissions that are required to keep from cooking the planet.
Last week the Trump administration also released its final management plan for 861,974 acres of land it removed from protections under the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The plan includes opening the region to extractive industries, mainly in the form of gas and oil drilling and uranium mining. The shrinking of Grand Staircase-Escalante coincided with Trump’s decision to slash the size of Bears Ears National Monument. Those moves are the subject of legal challenges hinging on the wording of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which empowers a president to establish a monument, but seems to require Congressional action to undo monument designations. And again, the government is rushing to try to make its policy goals — more drilling in more places — a reality even as their moves are being contested in court.
So we wish the legal defenders of ANWR and the national monuments luck and speed. A legitimate policy debate could be had over how much of our public lands should be drilled and mined, but the Trump administration, which is more gung-ho about producing oil and gas than even the oil and gas industries, has no interest in the intricacies of such questions. To let it ruin national treasures in service to Trump’s outdated and environmentally dangerous view of what makes America great would cause the nation great damage. He must be stopped, and it’s up to the courts, to Congress and, most fundamentally, to voters in the 2020 election to stop him.