Many junkies, before hitting bottom, stoop low enough to steal their mothers’ jewels. That’s what’s happening at a national scale on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Three weeks ago, I was there. For 12 days my friends and I floated 80 miles of the Hulahula River. Our journey traversed much of the refuge, from the mountains of the Brooks Range to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. We saw an abundance and diversity of birds and mammals that beggared imagination, slept on tundra prairies as soft as mattresses, and heard that rare, spacious silence that rolls in from beyond the limits of sight.
These wonders now appear doomed by America’s fossil fuel addiction. Oil and gas leasing within the refuge is imminent. Additionally, a seismic survey to evaluate oil-bearing geologic formations could be carried out as soon as this winter by trucks as heavy as combat tanks and by crews of men, organized in mobile villages, that will hopscotch day by day across the delicate tundra. Part of the tragedy of the Arctic Refuge is that its integrity is to be sacrificed not to meet a national emergency or vital economic needs, but out of spite.
All my adult life I longed to see the Far North. I was not disappointed, not by the howls of the wolves we watched hunting Dall sheep in the mountains, not by the young, blond-headed grizzly we surprised at the river’s edge, and certainly not by the caribou that streamed by us day by day, at first in groups of 10 and 20, then by the hundreds, finally by the thousands, always bound northward into and across the coastal plain, which is their calving ground and the terminus of their annual migration, the longest of any terrestrial mammal on the planet.
In 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act included eight million of the refuge’s approximately 19 million acres in the National Wilderness Preservation System. But Section 1002 of that law reserved the coastal plain, about 1.5 million acres, for further study of both its ecological significance and its potential for energy production. Section 1003 left it up to Congress whether to exploit the area’s oil and gas resources.
A generous reading of that approach holds that, at the time, such a reservation was prudent because the nation, in pursuit of energy independence, might one day need to draw upon the energy reserves of what became known as the 1002 area.
Today we know better. We know that neither the nation nor the world needs those reserves, whether they prove to be a new Prudhoe Bay or a mere puddle. More to the point, we know that, given the realities of greenhouse gas pollution and climate change, we cannot afford to burn them.
So why did the Republican-controlled Congress add a rider to the 2017 tax bill opening the 1002 area to drilling?
Because getting this cheap win in America’s pervasive and destructive culture wars stuck a thumb in the eye of environmental interests on behalf the oil and gas industry. The “Drill, baby, drill” crowd wanted access to the Arctic Refuge because they had been kept out. They had a spiteful point to prove: Nobody stops them, not ever.
The Arctic Refuge is not like anyplace else. On the Hulahula, even when we were chilled to the bone by ice fog blown in from floes on the Beaufort Sea or when gales forced us into our tents, we sensed the immense fragility in which we were suspended and the delicate balance of an ecological architecture for which the coastal plain is the keystone. It offers critical habitat to the Porcupine caribou herd, to birds from six continents, to denning polar bears and to much else. Nowhere in the Lower 48 do lands exist with qualities comparable to the refuge’s intactness and spaciousness.
But now the rush is on to exploit whatever fossil fuel riches may lie beneath the refuge’s coastal plain. Though the 2017 tax bill gave the government four years to hold a lease sale of at least 400,000 acres, the Trump administration plans to begin sales of drilling leases this year, most likely before a new seismic survey even begins to determine which areas are most promising. As a result, any bids the government receives will be speculative and lowball, falling far short of what proponents had promised.
But no matter. The bottom line is that the Trump administration wants to auction these leases before the 2020 elections or something else stops them. Unless that happens, it looks as though these junkies, like so many others, will sell the family jewels for cheap.
William deBuys is the author of, among other books, The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures.