Feather by feather, the Trump administration is plucking away at NEPA in order to push a wider pro-drilling agenda.
Feather by feather, the Trump administration is plucking away at NEPA in order to push a wider pro-drilling agenda. (illustration: Guy Billout)

The New Fight Over Oil in Alaska’s Greatest Wilderness

Advocates of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are trying to make an end run around the law and the American people. If they succeed, your backyard conservation area could be next.

Feather by feather, the Trump administration is plucking away at NEPA in order to push a wider pro-drilling agenda.
Guy Billout

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If the current effort to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling succeeds, then no protected lands in America are safe.

That’s not hyperbole. For almost 40 years, the fight over drilling on ANWR’s 1.6-million-acre coastal plain has been at the epicenter of our nation’s conservation debate. High-profile drilling bills were thwarted in the eleventh hour in 1989 (thanks to the Exxon Valdez disaster), 1995 (a Bill Clinton veto), and 2005 (a filibuster by Senate Democrats). This time the stakes are even higher. Instead of trying to win public support, pro-drilling forces are opting to bypass our democracy. Their tactics undercut existing laws, ignore legitimate science, and greatly diminish the role of the American people in the decision-making process. The short game is drilling for oil in the crown jewel of our refuge system. The long game is dismantling baseline environmental protections that have helped prevent exploitation of our public lands since Richard Nixon was president.

Benito Mussolini had a saying for this style of power grab: If you try to pluck a live chicken all at once, it makes a terrible racket. Pluck that chicken slowly, feather by feather, and nobody notices.

The slow pluck began in fall 2017, when Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski tacked a rider onto the Republican tax-overhaul bill mandating that the federal government issue at least two leases for drilling in the coastal plain. This was a carefully planned tactic, since the tax bill couldn’t be filibustered. It gave a minority of drilling proponents their only chance at success against majority opposition. Even members of the GOP took issue with the move. In late November, a dozen House Republicans signed a letter objecting to the rider, citing the country’s overwhelming opposition to drilling in ANWR. (According to a 2017 Yale University poll, just 29 percent of registered voters supported oil exploration in the refuge.) Still, after an ebullient President Trump signed the tax bill, he bragged about it in a speech: “I didn’t think it was a big deal until one day a friend of mine who was in the oil business called. ‘Is it true that you have ANWR in the bill?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Who cares? What is that?’ … ‘Reagan tried, every single president tried … the Bushes, everybody.’ I said, you got to be kidding, I love it now.”

Reporters at the time were quick to point out that there were still many protective regulations to clear before anyone could stick a drill in the tundra. That analysis was based on long-standing protections baked into the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act. In a nutshell, NEPA stipulates that while commerce is important, you can’t destroy federal lands in pursuit of industrial production without first completing exhaustive scientific analysis rich with public feedback. The act has been called the Magna Carta of the environmental movement.

Feather by feather, though, the Trump administration is plucking away at NEPA in order to push a wider pro-drilling agenda. In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration began “streamlining” the review process. Really this was cover for wholesale cuts to the length, depth, and intellectual honesty of the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that give NEPA its teeth.

With most Interior projects, the administration is requiring that the entire process be wrapped up in a calendar year and that the EIS should run only 150 pages. ANWR might be granted an exemption—nobody knows at this point—that allows for 300 pages, but even that’s paltry. In comparison, if a ski area wanted to expand into new terrain on its existing Forest Service lease, it could expect a two-to-seven-year process and a 500-to-600-page EIS. That may sound cumbersome, but as America has learned, industry ravages the landscape when left unchecked—recall the private companies that spilled so much oil into Ohio’s Cuyahoga River that it routinely burst into flame, the developers who denuded Florida coastlines of mangroves, and nearly every EPA Superfund cleanup site you’ve ever heard of. It’s simply better to go slow and get it right.

Dan Ritzman, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands, Water, Wildlife campaign and a veteran of EIS battles, predicts that the ANWR report will contain inadequate analysis about the impacts of drilling. He has good reason to be pessimistic given the rushed timeline and drilling proponents’ recent claims that exploration won’t harm wildlife or the landscape. This winter, oil-company prospectors hope to conduct seismic testing on the coastal plain, which involves driving over the tundra in 90,000-pound thumper trucks and sending up to 62,000 pounds of peak force into the ground in hopes of finding an oil deposit. This is a problem for the threatened polar bears that make their dens in the snow. Researchers from Polar Bears International put the odds of the trucks crushing dens—and the bears inside—at 23 percent. Nobody is sure what a seismic blast could do to the bears (who would test such a thing?), but it would likely drive some of them from their dens at least temporarily, possibly with fatal results for cubs.

The polar bears and the Gwich’in and your favorite wild places need us to fight for them now. So does our democracy.

SAExploration, the seismic company leading the search, claims it can mitigate damage by employing advanced forward-looking infrared imagery to locate dens before the big trucks roll. Unfortunately, according to Steven C. Amstrup, a former U.S. Geological Survey scientist who helped develop the technique, in practice it only works half the time.

As for the 200,000-strong porcupine caribou herd that’s often at the forefront of the ANWR debate—in part because of its importance to the native Gwich’in people—pro-drilling forces tout science suggesting that the animals tend to stay clear of oil rigs and roads. That sounds like a good thing until you dig a little deeper. The caribou’s calving grounds within the proposed drilling area are sometimes just eight miles wide. Build infrastructure there, and the herd could be forced out, causing a drastic decline in calf survival rates. This at a time when climate change, oil exploration, and other factors have caribou populations elsewhere in the Arctic on the precipice of steep declines.

The Trump administration has done its best to stanch public outcry about any of this. When the scope of the EIS was being hashed out last year, six of the seven public hearings took place in Alaska, giving drilling advocates a home-field advantage since every state resident receives checks from earnings on the state’s oil and gas royalties. (Polls have shown that Alaskans are overwhelmingly in favor of drilling in ANWR.) The seventh hearing was held in Washington, D.C., at 4:30 P.M. on a summer Friday. A Gwich’in representative says one meeting with their tribal government was scheduled with only a week’s notice, and the timing conflicted with a ceremony honoring a traditional chief. The administrators denied requests to reschedule. The scoping report also proposed a 45-day public comment period, shorter than the usual 60 to 90 days, let alone the extended 120 days you might expect for a controversial proposal to drill inside a wildlife refuge.

The reward for all the antidemocratic wrangling? According to USGS estimates from much questioned seismic testing in the 1980s, there’s between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil under the federal portion of the coastal plain. That higher number is big for a U.S. oil field, but the USGS only gives it a 5 percent probability. Those odds reveal that the industry has little idea how much oil is really there, which is why it’s sending the thumper trucks. According to an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress, drilling leases in ANWR will yield no more than $37.5 million for the U.S. Treasury over ten years. Which makes it all the more obvious that this fight isn’t just about ANWR. “The coastal plain is a touchstone for conservation everywhere,” says the Sierra Club’s Ritzman. “They’re using these same strategies to roll out this energy dominance across the landscape. If we’re not successful keeping them out of ANWR, we will see them moving into our backyards.”

So what to do? For starters, when that curtailed public comment period on the EIS opens up—it’s expected to in late 2018—we need to flood the government with comments as well as hound our congressional representatives to open investigations into the gutting of NEPA regulations. This strategy actually works. It’s believed that the wave of outrage over interior secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments helped limit the damage to just two. When a power-grabbing minority is plucking you over, it’s time to screech.

If that fails, you can expect conservation groups to take the administration to court. “If they don’t follow the rules, rush the process, and make mistakes, we’ll hold them accountable,” says Lydia Weiss, government relations director for the Wilderness Society. 

Finally, says Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America program, there’s the tactic of publicly shaming private-sector players. Any businesses supporting ANWR drilling can expect a deluge of e-mail and social-media tags letting the world know what they’re up to. Such direct pressure on Shell Oil in 2015 is widely believed to have helped sway CEO Ben van Beurden’s decision to back down from offshore drilling in the Arctic.

In the near term, the Trump administration will likely succeed in defanging NEPA. Don’t let that discourage you to the point of despair. We the people can still save the coastal plain. We must. The ANWR debate is not just about oil. It never has been. The polar bears and the Gwich’in and your favorite wild places need us to fight for them now. So does our democracy.