Environmental Groups Head Off Drilling in ANWR’s Coastal Plain

by Aidan Trump ‘21

In late December of 2017, President Trump signed into action the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The bill included an amendment that lifted oil and gas development restrictions from The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Then on August 17, 2020, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed a Record of Decision approving The Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. “Congress directed us to hold lease sales in the ANWR coastal plain, and we have taken a significant step in meeting our obligations,” said Bernhardt in a press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bernhardt’s signature subsequently opened up one million acres of land (almost the entirety of ANWR’s coastal plain), split into 22 parcels, available for 10 year oil and gas leases. Lease sales were marketed as a way to cancel out profits lost from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

The sales were announced on January 6, 2021. They “attracted just three bidders — one of which was the state of Alaska itself [the others being very small corporations] … half of the offered leases drew no bids at all … the sale generated a tiny fraction of the revenue it was projected to raise,” according to NPR. 

This failure of a sale is due in part to a multimedia campaign calling for ANWR’s coastal plain to be protected. The campaign, led by the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and many others cited the negative repercussions drilling could have on the fragile arctic ecosystem. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warned that oil development will permanently harm the habitats of polar bears, caribou, musk oxen, and upwards of 135 bird species who call the coastal plain home. For polar bears, the threat is amplified. With their population already low, losing the coastal plain, which has served as a place to safely hibernate and raise their young, would be devastating.

 It’s not only the animals who call ANWR home; the Gwich’in, Iñupiat, and other native Alaskan tribes have lived on the coastal plain for thousands of years. Those native to the region rely on the caribou as their main food source. Gwich’in tribal leader David Smith Jr. understands the impact drilling would have on his people’s lifestyle and culture. “If they do drill, that’s going to change the migratory path of the caribou, and that’s going to change our very lifestyle. The reason we’re here is for the caribou,” said Smith to Alaska Public Media. These concerns regarding ANWR’s wildlife and Native peoples did not go unheard. According to the Sierra Club, the public outcry caused all six major U.S. banks to agree not to finance drilling within ANWR. The coronavirus pandemic also had a role to play in the sales failure, due to the global recession it created.

Trump’s Justice Department frantically completed the mandatory antitrust review required to finalize the 11 leases before President Biden was inaugurated. Biden and his Secretary of the Interior pick Rep. Deb Haaland have both vehemently opposed drilling in the coastal plain. According to Alaska Public Media, the Biden administration could potentially try to buy the leases back. The future of ANWR’s coastal plain is unknown, but one thing is certain: environmental groups successfully have turned back momentum for drilling in the area.