When the Trump administration came into office, substantial protections, gained through decades of work by Earthjustice and our allies, guarded many of the most sensitive Arctic lands and waters from industrial exploitation.
- In the Western Arctic, key areas had been protected by the Obama administration.
- The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was proposed to be closed to drilling for good.
- And at the end of 2016, we won a huge victory: the vast majority of the Arctic Ocean was permanently withdrawn from future oil and gas leasing.
But since then, the Trump administration has steadily sought to unravel those safeguards:
- A record amount of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the Western Arctic has been offered up for leasing in 2017 by the Bureau of Land Management.
- For the first time ever, Congress voted in Dec. 2017 to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil leasing.
- And, President Trump has purported to undo the permanent Arctic Ocean drilling ban. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proposed a five-year plan1 for offshore drilling that would irreversibly harm coastal communities and wildlife.
The stakes in our battle to preserve these wild places couldn’t be higher. Climate scientists2 have found that drilling the Arctic is “incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2°C.”
And by the U.S. government’s own telling, the chances of a major oil spill are dangerously high3 and the ability to clean it up extremely low4 if offshore development goes ahead.
There’s no place on Earth like the Arctic, with its tundra, icy seas and craggy mountains. Iconic species like polar bears and walruses can’t find another home farther south—and there’s no farther north to go.
The Gwich’in people call the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, where caribou migrate hundreds of miles to bear their young Izhik gwats’an gwandaii goodlit—“The sacred place where life begins.”5
Far more than full-time northern residents rely on the Arctic for survival. Migratory birds from all 50 states and six continents nest in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and parts of the Western Arctic.
If we destroy the lands where they raise their young, the whole world will feel the loss. Learn why these regions under threat are so precious and what tools we have to fight back.
Earthjustice has gone to court three times since 19986 to defend the Western Arctic, an Indiana-size tract of federally owned land.
Administratively known as the “National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska,” much of the Western Arctic is wild and undisturbed, in contrast with the industrialized oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the east.
Our litigation has helped win protections for Teshekpuk Lake,7 one of the most ecologically important wetlands in the Arctic. And in 2013, the Obama administration put the Teshekpuk Lake lands and many other sensitive areas in the Western Arctic off limits to drilling.8
But at an oil industry conference in spring 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that public lands in Alaska like the Western Arctic would soon be “open for business.”9 At the conference, Zinke ordered a rewrite10 of the Obama-era management plan.
The Bureau of Land Management solicited comments to gauge industry interest in drilling in all of the Western Arctic’s 23 million acres and offered a record 10.3 million acres—every single acre currently open to leasing in the Reserve—to oil companies for leasing in December 2017.11
One oil company, ConocoPhillips, holds most of the leases in the Western Arctic, and it has plans to explore and develop ever further westward and closer to the irreplaceable Teshekpuk Lake area.
With the many looming threats to the Arctic, it’s here in the Western Arctic that the oil industry is already making investments and proposing to drill in sensitive areas now.
But there’s reason for hope: We’ve persuaded courts to keep this land wild before, and now we are back in court fighting to preserve the Western Arctic.
On behalf of Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, Earthjustice filed suit on Feb. 2, 2018,12 in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage challenging federal lease sales13 that pave the way for expanded oil and gas drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Among other flaws, the Bureau of Land Management completely ignored the effects of greenhouse gas emissions that will accumulate if Reserve fossil fuels are extracted and burned, even though the National Environmental Policy Act14 requires the agency to analyze these foreseeable climate impacts and their serious implications for future generations.
In December 2017, Trump signed a tax bill that used backdoor budgetary tactics to open the Refuge’s coastal plain to oil and gas drilling.15 The measure requires the Interior Department to hold an oil and gas lease sale in the coastal plain within four years, and the administration is already moving forward.
At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Nov. 2, Gwich’in tribal member Sam Alexander described16 how drilling in the Refuge would destroy his people’s way of life.
“Money can’t buy our wealth. But the reckless pursuit of money can take it away. And for that we will never stop fighting to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and our way of life.”17
“The Gwich’in are the caribou people,” Alexander continued. “The Gwich’in have lived in this area and relied on the Porcupine Caribou Herd since time immemorial. Caribou are how we survive and are integral to who we are and how we define ourselves.”
“Caribou are our stories, our soul, the food on our table, our clothes, and our tools.”18
And it won’t just be the wilderness and wildlife of the Refuge that will suffer if drilling proceeds there.
The emissions from oil and gas development would exacerbate global warming and raise global sea levels, increasing the climate threat to low-lying coastal cities around the world.
In addition, melting permafrost could release large amounts of methane, which is roughly 30 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.19 Toxic pollutants emitted from oil and gas development are already having an adverse health impact on frontline communities.20
Political leaders have repeatedly determined that drilling in the Refuge is a terrible idea.
President Dwight Eisenhower set aside the territory as a federally protected area in 1960, for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.21 President Bill Clinton vetoed a 1995 budget bill22 that would have opened the Arctic Refuge for oil and gas leasing.
And in 2005, about two dozen House Republicans convinced their leadership to strip a similar provision from a budget bill by threatening to vote ‘no’ if the budget included refuge drilling.23
Earthjustice is working with a broad coalition of partners to oppose this latest reckless attempt to hand over the publicly owned wilderness of the Arctic Refuge to the oil and gas industry.
Trump has signed a law opening the Refuge to oil leasing, but before anything can happen on the ground, the Trump administration will have to comply with many federal laws designed to protect the values of the Refuge. We will take action to enforce those laws.
The fight to keep oil drilling out of the Refuge is just beginning, and we will be there every step of the way.
Beginning in the George W. Bush administration, Earthjustice represented a coalition of Alaska Native and conservation groups in legal action to oppose new leasing and then exploration drilling.24
In several critical cases, we won injunctions that stopped drilling and forced reconsideration of the federal government’s plan to turn the Arctic Ocean into an oil field.
We’ve had a preview of how disastrous Arctic Ocean drilling could be.
Though our work helped stop most of the industry’s efforts to drill, in 2012, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell did receive federal approval to do some limited exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s seas.25 The company immediately ran into safety problems.26
One of its oil rigs, the Kulluk, ran aground in southern Alaska during a storm, wrecking so badly it had to be scrapped.27 Following this misadventure, and another failed attempt to drill in the Chukchi Sea in 2015,28 Shell abandoned its Arctic Ocean exploration and, along with almost every other company, eventually relinquished its leases.29
Building on our successful legal efforts, we undertook a campaign with our partners at the close of the Obama administration to put in place permanent protections for the Arctic Ocean.
The administration responded with two important steps to preserve the Arctic Ocean in 2016. Under a law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act,30 Obama permanently withdrew almost 120 million acres in the Arctic Ocean from drilling, leaving just 2 percent of the region open for development.31
In its five-year leasing plan, Obama's Department of the Interior also took that remaining 2 percent off the table for new leasing until at least 2022, citing, among other things, the severe difficulty of containing and cleaning up a large oil spill in the Arctic, which it acknowledged would be “reasonably foreseeable and assumed” if development were allowed.32
According to the government’s analysis, there is a 75 percent chance of an oil spill if even one oil lease is fully developed.33
The Trump administration now wants to undo these protections. In April 2017, Trump issued an executive order purporting to undo Obama’s permanent protection of the Arctic and parts of the Atlantic Oceans from offshore drilling.34
We’re representing a coalition of conservation and Alaska Native groups in a legal challenge to Trump’s executive order, which exceeded his authority under the statute and Constitution. On Mar. 19, the U.S. District Court for the District Alaska rejected arguments by the Trump administration and the American Petroleum Institute to dismiss the lawsuit.35
“President Trump tried to shut the courthouse door,” said Earthjustice Attorney Erik Grafe. “But the court’s order keeps the door open and affirms that we are a country of laws; the President gets no exception. We now look forward to demonstrating to the court that President Trump violated the law and the constitution in attempting to undo the Arctic and Atlantic drilling ban.”
Trump also wants to rip up the five-year leasing plan enacted in 2016 and replace it with one that favors industry.
On Jan. 4, 2018, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke rolled out a proposal for a new plan that would revoke existing protections, opening the door to drilling in about 90 percent of federal waters, including the entire Arctic Ocean, and scheduling the largest number of leases ever.36
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is also trying to weaken offshore drilling safety rules37 enacted in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft, who led the federal response after the Deepwater Horizon spill, told a Washington symposium in July of 2017 that there is no hope of cleaning up a similar spill in the Arctic.
“I can assure you that if there is an oil spill, we’re not going to recover all that oil,” Zukunft said.38
“And in fact, in the best of days, during Deepwater Horizon, we maybe recovered 15 percent of that oil … We had a fleet of over 6,000 ships out there doing recovery operations—and we had the infrastructure to support all of that.
“Now, you put that many people up in Barrow, Alaska? They better be carrying polar bear spray, because they’re going to be camped out with the mosquitos—because we don’t have the infrastructure up there.”
The public has already spoken out against what the Trump administration is proposing, and opposition is steadily growing as the new offshore leasing proposal moves forward.39 During the development of the Obama-era plan President Trump is now trying to replace, 1.4 million people submitted comments that called for no new offshore drilling.
As of March of 2018, more than 1.35 million Americans had already registered their opposition to an early draft of the five-year plan, adding to the wave of opposition from local, state and national leaders.40
The Arctic has warmed more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States over the past 60 years, leading to impacts such as thawing permafrost and vanishing sea ice—and the trend is only expected to continue.
To reverse course and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the world must aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the Trump administration is moving us in the opposite direction. Rather than permanently alter unique wilderness landscapes and jeopardize biologically rich Arctic Ocean waters with the risk of a catastrophic oil spill, the wisest course for America’s Arctic and the rest of the globe is to keep it in the ground.
Learn more about indigenous-led movements and environmentalists’ ongoing efforts to protect the Arctic through The Last Oil, a symposium hosted by the University of New Mexico in February 2018.
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McGlade C, Ekins P. “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C.” Nature, 2015 Jan 8;517(7533):187-90. doi: 10.1038/nature14016.
Mr. Samuel Alexander, Tribal Member, Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government, speaking before the Full Committee Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Potential for Oil and Gas Exploration in the 1002 Area at the 366 Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 2, 2017. Audio excerpt begins at 1:08:38.
Mr. Samuel Alexander, Tribal Member, Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government, speaking before the Full Committee Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Potential for Oil and Gas Exploration in the 1002 Area at the 366 Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 2, 2017.
Establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Public Land Order 2214, FR Doc. 60-11510, Dec. 6, 1960
"As Long Promised, President Vetoes The G.O.P. Budget." The New York Times, Dec. 7, 1995.
"GOP Scraps ANWR Drilling, But Budget Battle Persists." NPR, Nov. 10, 2005.
"Government Gives Go Ahead to Shell to Top Drill in Arctic." Earthjustice, Aug. 30, 2012.