Voices

The Trump Administration's Pro-Offshore Oil Drilling Stance is Ecological War On Alaska

Enabled by a ruthlessly pro-corporate GOP, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is hellbent on compromising public lands and threatening the ecological livelihood of local communities.
February 15, 2018, 4:45pm
Image via Facebook

Alaska is under attack, and the threat isn’t coming from a rogue terrorist group—it’s coming from the U.S. government. As part of their highly controversial tax bill, Republicans have lifted protections on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, leaving the area open to ecologically destructive oil development. The bottom line: President Donald Trump is looking to jumpstart Alaska’s oil industry to the benefit of multinational corporations, and is willing to risk public health disasters, economic disenfranchisement for locals, wildlife extinction and climate change in order to do so.

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But the opening of the Arctic Refuge is just one of several of the Trump administration’s alarming efforts to exploit the Arctic. In December, Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also held an auction for drilling leases in the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23 million acre stretch of land in the Western Arctic that is globally considered to be a critical ecological resource. And earlier this month, Trump and Zinke introduced a 5-Year Plan for offshore leasing, a proposal which opens vulnerable sections of America’s seas and oceans—including important areas in the Arctic—to gas and oil drilling.

Fortunately, the process of invigorating Big Oil in the icy stretches of the Arctic is one that will take years, and activists from across the political spectrum are determined to fight the Trump administration at every step

VICE Impact spoke with two representatives from Earthjustice, one of the nation’s leading nonprofit environmental law organizations, about what can be done to save Alaska from destructive oil expansion. Erik Grafe, an Earthjustice Attorney based in Anchorage, Alaska, and Marissa Knodel, the organization’s Associate Legislative Counsel out of Washington D.C., spoke with VICE Impact about the future of the Arctic, and what we can all do to help.

VICE Impact: How would drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be detrimental to the environment, and our world as a whole?

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Marissa Knodel: Opening up this area is only going to exacerbate global warming and the adverse impacts of climate change. All of Alaska, the governor and their senators, have recognized that climate change is impacting Alaska at twice the rate as the rest of the nation. They're seeing the impacts visibly right now and they recognize that they need to do something about it.


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Erik Grafe : The coastal plain [in the Arctic Refuge] is also very important biologically. It's where hundreds of thousands of caribou go every summer to calf. It's home to birds that nest. It's where polar bears den. Any oil and gas development in that area, has the potential to harm those animals. It's the last place we should be consigning to oil development.

Now that the Republican tax bill has passed, what are courses of action that can still be taken to fight oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge?

Grafe: The tax bill lifts the prohibition against drilling in the Refuge that was there for decades. But it doesn't lift or waive any other of the bedrock environmental laws that are designed to protect wildlife and land in the Refuge. What that means is that when the administration tries to implement this legislation by allowing oil and gas activities, it'll have to comply with all of these other environmental laws that are meant to protect the area. So there are many steps that have to be taken before this law can be implemented, and if the Trump administration tries to attempt shortcuts or rubber stamp activities in the refuge, we in the conservation community won't hesitate to go to court to enforce those environmental laws.

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Knodel: Exactly. There are many steps that need to happen before any drilling can occur, and a lot of those steps will require periods of time where the public will have an opportunity to comment. And so we will make sure that folks have a chance to express their opposition during those periods. It’s important to keep elevating that message with our elected officials.

I want to move onto Trump’s 5-Year Plan for offshore leasing, which opens vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean for oil and gas drilling. What’s at risk here?

Knodel: Drilling anywhere involves incredible risks, from the first to last stages. The first thing that has to happen is seismic exploration, and that involves large sonar blasts that can deafen marine mammals and change migration patterns. There are many wildlife risks that go with seismic exploration.

When you get to the drilling stage, there are daily impacts on the local environment, including air pollution and constant leaks. Then you have big oil disasters like Deepwater Horizon, where you see the impacts of those spills for years and years. If something like that happened in the Arctic, the nearest Coast Guard Base is over a thousand miles away. The lead of the Coast Guard was quoted late last year saying that they are not prepared to address a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. And, just last year, the Trump administration said they're looking at rolling back safety rules that were put in place after Deepwater Horizon. So there are risks at every step of the process. We are not prepared to deal with them, and it's going to be the wildlife, coastal communities, and our climate that's going to suffer for it.

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Let’s move on to the National Petroleum Reserve. In December of last year, the administration held an auction on drilling leases there, but there was a lack of interest . Is this a promising sign that there will be little interest in drilling in Alaska?

Grafe: Even though industry didn't bid on many leases, the administration threw the door open and offered absolutely as much as it could. So I think The National Petroleum Reserve is under threat as much as these other areas. It's hard to predict what industry will do, but we're certainly worried about the threats to that area because it is very sensitive. Some areas in the western Arctic, like Teshekpuk Lake, are every bit as vital biologically as the coastal plain is in the Arctic Refuge.

How are oil and gas development efforts in the Arctic taking us away from a clean energy future?

Knodel: There's scientific consensus that says we should be well on our way to getting off of fossil fuel and using more renewable energy, before we see severe and irreversible climate impacts. So investing in this fossil fuel infrastructure in the Arctic, which is going to take decades to build before we see production, is a terrible idea. It's a waste of money, resources and policy energy. It locks us into this fossil fuel future when we should be nearly completed with our transition to renewable energy.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.