In 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuel development by establishing an oil and gas leasing program. Then, in January 2021, parts of our nation’s greatest wildlife refuge were parceled up and sold to the highest bidder to drill for oil.
Efforts to turn back this injustice began in June 2021 when the Biden administration paused the leasing program and gave the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) an opportunity to reassess the environmental impacts of the program. The BLM was charged with getting input from the local indigenous community, experts and the American public. To that end, 106,463 comments were submitted from non-profits, tribal groups, federal, state and local organizations, businesses and individual citizens.
Following the public comment period, the BLM released a scoping report on Dec. 1. This Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Coastal Plain documents the results of a public comment period, providing insight into issues they want addressed with the Arctic Refuge leasing program.
With thousands of public comments submitted, the 122- page report was detailed. We read it so you don’t have to, and we answered a list of questions you might have about the report.
So, what did people have to say about the leasing program overall?
Overall, commenters wanted to see a holistic analysis of how activities resulting from the leasing program—such as infrastructure, transport, shipping, combustion of petroleum products, and offshore development—would impact the environment. Many mentioned the potential for these activities to have repercussions both locally and globally—particularly regarding transportation and the combustion of oil and gas post-extraction. They pointed out that both factors run the risk of exacerbating global warming and pollution. In other words, we aren’t just concerned about the oil extraction—there are trucks and ships and equipment involved, not to mention what happens when the oil is burned.
Photo: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command via Flickr
What about the potential for oil spills in the refuge?
Commenters called for an accurate spill analysis that uses current information on the potential effects of oil spills in marine waters, ecosystems and on wildlife. For example, commenters recommended that the SEIS include a thorough and accurate analysis of a worst-case scenario, including the consequences of a spill reaching nearshore waters in the Beaufort Sea or an accident occurring in running rivers without ice cover.
The leasing program was introduced as part of the national budget in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, so did commenters have anything to say about the economic risks of drilling in the refuge?
Yes. Commenters pointed out that renewable energy is on the rise and capable of replacing fossil fuels entirely. Therefore, commenters suggested that the SEIS consider the reasonably foreseeable scenario in which failing fossil fuel markets force an abandonment of exploration and production. With governments around the globe moving away from fossil fuels due to the climate crisis, commenters noted that the SEIS should evaluate the environmental and socioeconomic costs of this potential market failure.
Speaking of the climate crisis, the Arctic Refuge is home to permafrost that stores vast amounts of carbon, which plays an immense role in mitigating further global warming. Wouldn’t drilling exacerbate melting permafrost and exacerbate global warming?
It absolutely would, and commenters didn’t let that slide. They recommended the analysis consider the broader impacts of permafrost and soil resource degradation. With the Arctic warming three times faster than anywhere else on the planet, commenters requested an analysis of how thawing permafrost and subsequent carbon release would impact the refuge’s and the globe’s climate.
I’ve heard that oil and gas development requires a lot of water. Did commenters have anything to say about what the leasing program might mean for the refuge’s water supply?
Fossil fuel development certainly does require vast amounts of water to operate, largely due to its wastewater disposal practices, which entails water diversions and withdrawals. Considering the Arctic Refuge already has little readily accessible water, commenters expressed concern about the degradation or contamination of potable water sources and how such repercussions would harm both wildlife and humans who rely upon the Coastal Plain. That includes overwintering fishes, caribou, polar bears and other fauna that consume or inhabit water in the program area as well as the indigenous communities, the Gwich’in and Iñupiaq.
You mentioned caribou and polar bears; did commenters have more to say about them?
Wildlife welfare was a big concern cited in the report, and commenters expressed specific fears for both the Porcupine caribou herd and polar bears. Regarding the caribou, commenters want to see gaps filled from the previous Impact Statement, including an analysis of indirect, direct and cumulative effects of development upon the herd. Commenters also mentioned that the herd’s use of the Coastal Plain as their calving grounds makes displacement from this habitat potentially catastrophic for the herd and therefore for the Gwich’in people who depend on it.
Commenters noted that sea ice melt and food limitation have pushed these marine mammals to increase their use of terrestrial habitats—including the Coastal Plain. As a result, many people found the mitigation measures in the 2019 Environmental Impact Statement inadequate to protect polar bears and their habitat, requesting the incorporation of more or different mitigation measures to better protect the species.
Photo: Danielle Brigida via Flickr
What does the report say about how the leasing program could be carried out if it isn’t ended?
While we believe it is impossible to conduct drilling in the refuge in any way that isn’t disruptive, the report does mention some ideas about how they could minimize the leasing program’s environmental impact if it were to move forward. For example, the report discusses what it calls the “phased leasing alternative,” which recommends that unsold land from the first lease sale be included in the second lease sale. This effectively ensures that less land is leased overall, decreasing the potential environmental impact of the program.
So, with this alternative and more, the report provides some ideas about how to minimize the program’s environmental damage.
So what comes after this?
The next step is for the BLM to publish a draft SEIS, which will happen around June 2022 and which will begin another public comment period. Once that comment period ends, the BLM will revise the draft SEIS and publish the final SEIS, which will identify the BLM’s preferred alternative for the program.
Conducting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment is an involved process. While a long road lies ahead, this scoping report gets us closer to an accurate analysis of what oil drilling means for the Arctic Refuge. The concerns expressed by thousands of commenters goes to show just how much the public cares about this national treasure nestled up in northeastern Alaska.
The Arctic leasing program was established in a 2017 budget reconciliation bill and can be eliminated as part of a future budget reconciliation bill. The Build Back Better Act, which has passed in the House of Representatives and includes language that would eliminate the Arctic leasing program entirely, has stalled in the Senate. But there is still reason for hope. If Congress passes a bill that ends the leasing program, then a new environmental impact assessment wouldn’t even be necessary. Clearly, there are a plethora of scientifically sound reasons to keep oil drilling out of the Arctic Refuge—the public knows it, and, now, the BLM recognizes it, too.