Trump unveils plan to drill for oil in Alaska wildlife refuge

Environmentalists criticise ‘reckless’ bid to establish fossil fuel extraction in protected Arctic land

Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska has been designated protected land since 1960
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Trump administration has announced plans to sell oil drilling rights for vast swathes of an Arctic wildlife refuge, sparking an outcry from environmental campaigners.

The US Department of the Interior (DOI), which manages most federal land in the country, published a draft environmental impact statement yesterday recommending the implementation of an oil leasing programme in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in northern Alaska.

As Bloomberg notes, the draft document lays out four approaches to leasing the land for oil development, including two “that envision putting the entire coastal plain - about 1.56 million acres - up for grabs”.

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The DOI statement comes almost exactly a year after Congress voted to lift a ban on energy development in the refuge.

Republicans led by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski “have long been fighting to open the refuge’s coastal plain”, reports the HuffPost.

Many Alaskan residents also support drilling in the refuge, as “the oil and gas industry is a major contributor to the state’s economy” and will provide a source of crude oil for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, adds Washington DC-based news site NPR.

But environmentalists are furious about the decision to go ahead with drilling even after the Trump administration acknowledged the threat of “potential oil spills and impacts to polar bear and caribou that roam through the region”, says Bloomberg.

Jamie Williams, president of conservation charity The Wilderness Society, called the decision “reckless”, adding: “Of all of the Trump administration’s conservation rollbacks, the drive to sell off one of America’s wildest places for dirty, high-risk oil-drilling ranks among the worst.

“Americans have no desire to drill the Arctic Refuge, and this action is pure pandering to special interests in the oil lobby.”

The move has also been strongly condemned by leaders of the Gwich’in peoples, the indigenous inhabitants of the region, who say drilling would threaten the survival of multiple native animal species and deface the landscape.

And the impact of the drilling “would not stop at the US-Canada border”, according to Chris Rider, executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

“Drilling in the Porcupine Caribou herd’s calving grounds could have devastating impacts across Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. It’s critical that Canadians stand with the Gwich’in and say no to drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” he said.

But US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defended the plan, issuing a statement that said: “An energy-dominant America starts with an energy-dominant Alaska, and among the scores of accomplishments we have had at Interior under President Trump, taking these steps toward opening the [refuge] stands out among the most impactful toward bolstering America’s economic strength and security.”

The environmental review will be published in the US Federal Register on 28 December, after which members of the public will have 45 days to comment on the plans.

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