The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Will Not Face Mass Oil Drilling—for Now

Large oil companies skipped out on the auction, but environmentalists say a worrisome precedent has been set

A landscape photo of the refuge. A caribou is in the foreground, standing on the rocky banks of a shallow pool of water. Tall, green mountains stretch up to the top of the photograph.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to an abundance of wildlife such as polar bears and caribou, which the region's Indigenous communities rely on and hold sacred. Danielle Brigida via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

For the last 40 years, politicians, oil companies, environmentalists, and Indigenous peoples have clashed over whether or not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—the largest stretch of intact wilderness in the United States—should be opened up for drilling. Now, that battle is finally coming to a close, reports Joel K. Bourne, Jr. for National Geographic.

The ANWR is located within the Arctic Circle in the northeastern corner of Alaska. It is home to an abundance of wildlife like polar bears and caribou, which the region's Indigenous communities rely on and hold sacred. But billions of barrels of oil may lurk beneath the icy surface, making the refuge a target for oil companies and pro-industry politicians, reports Emily Holden for the Guardian.

"If you can’t draw a line at the tundra and keep this one area of the Arctic off limits, then the question is, where can you draw the line and what protected part or wildlife refuge in the United States will remain off limits?" Adam Kolton, the executive director of the environmentalist Alaska Wilderness League, tells the Guardian.

President-elect Joe Biden has announced that he will protect the refuge from exploitation, and the Trump Administration has been racing to seal the deal and auction off parts of the refuge before the end of Trump's term on January 20, reports Andy McGlashen for Audubon.

A build-up of anticipation and angst accumulated as the current administration attempted to auction off the leases on January 6, which would have sealed the fate of the refuge. The administration originally argued that the sale could ring in $900 million, but in a turn of events, the sales came up short. Very short. They only attracted three bidders, and one was the state of Alaska itself, report Tegan Hanlon and Nathaniel Herz for Alaska Public Media.

"They held the lease in ANWR—that is history-making," Larry Persily, a former federal gas line official for Alaska, tells Alaska Public Media. "That will be recorded in the history books and people will talk about it. But no one showed up."

The auction raked in a total of $14 million for 11 tracts of land that cover around 600,000 acres, reports the Guardian. The lack of interest was likely driven by the fact that oil is in such low demand at the moment and that the public has become more critical of drilling because of its effects on the environment and climate, reports Audubon.

Persily tells Alaska Public Media that some politicians have been gunning for drilling in the Arctic for years, but companies don't treasure it like they once did. However, pro-oil politicians have continued the push, arguing the move would help the U.S. become self-dependent on oil and boost Alaska’s economy, reports Alex DeMarban for the Anchorage Daily News.

"After years of promising a revenue and jobs bonanza [the Trump Administration] ended up throwing a party for themselves, with the state being one of the only bidders," Kolton says in a statement. "We have long known that the American people don’t want drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the Gwich’in people don’t want it, and now we know the oil industry doesn’t want it either.”

Despite the few bids, environmentalists aren't celebrating. Now, that even a few leases have been sold, it'll be even more challenging to stop the development, Nauri Toler, an Iñupiaq woman and an environmental organized for Native Movement, tells Alaska Public Media.

"It’s hard to go back after the lease sales—it’s a whole different game after that happens," she said during a protest on Wednesday, reports Alaska Public Media. "It’s pretty heart-wrenching.

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