Forty years after the federal government took steps to keep the largest natural reserve in America – if not the world – safe from desecration, Congressional Republicans have quietly stripped away those protections with a little-seen provision on a tax bill that could allow major companies to begin drilling for oil and gas reserves there for the first time.
The provision puts in danger the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: a vast piece of land in Alaska that is considered holy by Native American tribes, and one that plays a crucial role for the continued existence of polar bears, caribou, and millions of migratory birds who flock there every year to mate.
Opponents of the move say the Republican efforts amount to a cynical bow to special interests, and have the potential to wreak havoc on the environment and human rights with little (if any) economic upside.
“This was a blatant grab by the oil industry and their backers in Congress to hoodwink the public, and fulfil their political agenda to drive a stake into the heart of one of the most pristine areas left in the world,” Franz Matzner, the deputy director for federal campaigns for the Natural Resource Defence Council, told The Independent.
The refuge was first set aside in 1960 by former President Dwight D Eisenhower, and was later expanded upon by former President Jimmy Carter in 1980, when a portion of the land known as the 10-02 was left potentially open for drilling as the Arab oil embargo and the Iranian revolution led to worries of oil shortages.
The status of the refuge has been at the centre of fierce debate virtually ever since then, but the tax provision this week marks the first time that Republicans have succeeded in passing a piece of legislation on the matter with a sympathetic president in the Oval Office.
Sitting in the pristine and nearly untouched wilderness of north-western Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) spans some 19.6 million acres of protected land, with 1.5 million acres in bureaucratic limbo due to their 10-02 classification and the fierce battle around them.
The lands are a significant sign of what the world may soon face, and are an essential part of the migration and reproduction patterns of caribou, millions of bird species, and polar bears.
The region, like much of Alaska, has begun to see the devastation that climate change is expected to bring, with melting sea ice, and changing migratory patterns as wildlife tries to adapt to their quickly changing environment – yet another reason why environmentalists say the area shouldn’t be opened up for drilling, arguing that more oil needs to be kept in the ground to curb climate change effects,
But there are other reasons that Democrats and environmentalists have opposed the provision. For some, opening up the land to drilling is yet another signal, after the recent decision to shrink the Bears Ears national monument, that the Trump administration is uninterested in the rights and heritages of Native Americans.
“President Trump has effectively said that he wants to exploit this sacred place, and instead honour the sacred pledge which he and the Republican Party have made to the oil industry to allow drilling there,” Sam Alexander, a board member with Gwich’in Council International, said in a statement following the tax vote.
The Gwich’in tribe considers the land of ANWR sacred, and relies upon the caribou that flock their every year as a main source of sustenance.
“It is so preposterous – it is such a compromise of a century of commitment to conservation policy,” Mr Alexander added.
Others simply point to what they see as the shaky economics surrounding opening the land up to drilling. Already-low prices of oil could easily mean that oil and gas companies won’t bother with leasing in the arctic anyway, as they already enjoy plenty of leases on American public lands where they already have oil and gas extraction operations, they say.
From a tax perspective, the inclusion of the ANWR changes may be small potatoes overall. An analysis of the legislation by the liberal think tank Centre for American Progress found that the proposal would generate roughly $40m (£29.9m) over the next decade, even though Republicans claim the figure ranks upwards of a billion in increased revenue.
To put that in perspective, authors of the analysis note, the revenues wouldn’t likely be enough to offset even the tax cuts Mr Trump would personally receive.
Environmentalists and Democrats say that the battle to keep ANWR pristine isn’t over. They’re considering their options, including using state or local laws to push back, using shareholder pressure to influence oil companies, and using federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to try and derail the process.
They’re up against the likes of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who slipped in the provision to open up federal lands for drilling.
Ms Murkowski, the senior senator from the state, is a close ally of the oil and gas industry, and received $1.4m in campaign donations from the industry during her career, making it the top donor to her campaigns, according to Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP) data.
That support isn’t inconsistent with the oil and gas industry’s preference for candidates in general, however. During the most recent election cycle, for instance, CRP data shows the industry donated $26.8m to Republicans, compared to just $39m to Democratic candidates.
“We need people to stay engaged in this fight. We’re not going to walk away from it. It is discouraging,” Athan Manuel, the director of the Sierra Club’s Land Protection Project, said.
“It’s a terrible development for us to have Congress open up this area for leasing and drilling… but it’s certainly not over.”
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