Worries over oil drilling plans for Arctic wildlife refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is one of Earth’s last great wildernesses. But it is at grave risk, as a provision in United States President Donald Trump's tax reform package will open up the area for oil and gas exploration.
Caribou grazing on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Long eyed by the oil and gas industry, the refuge has been jealously guarded by environmentalists and local indigenous people who still live off the land and on the herds o
Caribou grazing on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Long eyed by the oil and gas industry, the refuge has been jealously guarded by environmentalists and local indigenous people who still live off the land and on the herds of caribou that roam it.PHOTO: US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

Activists lobby Congress to quash proposal; forecast revenue meant to offset cost of Trump's tax cuts

Alaska is a long way north and four time zones away from Washington.

But there is one item folded into United States President Donald Trump's tax reform package, whose effects will be profound at the very tip of the northern-most state - the proposed opening up of part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to the oil and gas industry.

Leasing vast tracts of land in an area - believed to hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 3.7 trillion cubic metres of natural gas - would yield nearly US$1.1 billion (S$1.48 billion) over the next 10 years, according to the plan whose proponents include Ms Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican senator from Alaska.

The forecast revenue would supposedly help offset the cost of tax cuts, even though experts have warned the cuts could bloat the national debt by at least US$1 trillion.

Long eyed by the oil and gas industry, the ANWR has been jealously guarded by environmentalists and local indigenous people who, to a significant degree, still live off the land and on the herds of caribou that roam it.

Spanning 7.6 million ha in the north-east corner of Alaska - dotted with mountains, rivers, and rolling grassy escarpments, and with a shoreline on the icy cold Beaufort Sea - the ANWR has been described as the Serengeti of North America.

CRISIS POINT

We are thawing three times faster than anywhere else in the world. Our animals are suffering and starving. We need this administration to be aware of what's going on.

MS BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF, an executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, on Alaska being "ground zero" for global warming and climate change.

It is the birthing ground of the Porcupine caribou herd, named after a river called Porcupine, and the denning habitat for increasingly threatened polar bears.

It is also home to the native American Gwich'in people.

Ms Bernadette Demientieff, an executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee - formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill for oil in the refuge - was in Washington last week handing out information as she lobbied Congress to quash the latest plan.

"This area they are trying to open up is sacred land to my people, the Gwich'in nation of Canada and Alaska. This tax Bill is going to pretty much destroy who we are," she told The Sunday Times.

The Gwich'in, who number close to 2,000, venerate the area as the place where life begins and have lived off the Porcupine caribou herd for thousands of years.

The herd is part of the fabric of their lives.

"This is the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou. Their wintering grounds are in Canada," said Ms Demientieff.

The Porcupine caribou herd is among the largest of several gigantic caribou herds, whose migration across the Arctic spans more than 4,300km of mostly roadless wilderness. In 2013, when the most recent photographic census was completed, the herd was estimated at 197,000.

Their numbers have declined, according to Ms Demientieff, who said that Alaska is "ground zero" for global warming and climate change.

"We are thawing three times faster than anywhere else in the world. Our animals are suffering and starving. We need this administration to be aware of what's going on," she said.

Many environmentalists have also blasted the logic of the tax Bill before Congress.

They say the oil industry could probably find and exploit crude more cheaply elsewhere, rather than embark on a costly exercise to build infrastructure in the remote Alaskan north. They note that oil prices remain relatively low.

Critics also charge that the Trump administration's revenue numbers, based on leasing the land, appear to be considerably overestimated.

"The state of Alaska would get half of any money raised from oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic Refuge," The Wilderness Society, a major wildlife organisation, says on its website. "To raise US$1 billion in federal revenue, the oil industry would have to pay US$2 billion to cover the 50/50 split."

"Every one of those acres would have to be leased for US$2,500 to reach the Republicans' target. That's impossible."

It may not make much financial sense today, but the worry is that the move before Congress is the proverbial foot in the door for the oil companies.

"The push for Arctic refuge drilling isn't about the federal budget," the Wilderness Society says.

"It's about selling off our shared public lands."

SEE INSIGHT

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Worries over oil drilling plans for Arctic wildlife refuge'. Print Edition | Subscribe