The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a 19.3 million acre stretch of wilderness in northern Alaska, the largest in the United States, and has been protected from development for nearly six decades. It is home to 45 different species of mammals and 200 species of birds from 6 continents, making it one of, if not the most biodiverse areas in all the arctic. Environmentalists have considered it “one of the finest examples of wilderness left on earth.” Specifically, the coastal plain along the refuge’s northern edge, known as the 1002 Coastal Plain portion, is particularly diverse, containing the largest number of polar bear dens in Alaska, and provides habitat for muskoxen, Arctic wolves, foxes, hares, migrating waterfowl and herds of Porcupine caribou. This coastal plain portion is also believed to sit atop possibly the largest onshore oil reserves in North America that have yet to be tapped.

Most of the ANWR has been designated as “wilderness” since it first became a federally protected area in 1960, and so is off limits to development. However, when the ANWR was expanded in 1980, the 1002 Coastal Plain portion was recognized as “a promising area for energy development” (which was later supported by a seismic study in 1987), and essentially became bookmarked as an area with potential for oil extraction, but requiring Congressional authorization before any drilling. Based on the seismic data from the 1987 study and new well samples, a 1998 study of the area by USGS indicated the possibility of up to 11.8 billion barrels of oil. Interest in the area by the energy industry, however, has been up and down over the years for various reasons, such as fluctuating oil prices, political and legal challenges, and the discovery of other nearby oil deposits. It has remained largely untouched for nearly 60 years, within which Republicans in Congress have attempted nearly fifty times to allow drilling in the ANWR.

In 2017, the Republican-controlled Congress finally succeeded when it passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which included a mandated time frame for the Department of the Interior (DOI) to begin leasing land for development on the coastal plain. Donald Trump signed the Act into law in December 2017, directing his administration to open the 1002 Coastal Plain area for development and to begin leasing the land. Political controversy and environmental assessment requirements have prevented the lease of any plots so far, but in September 2019, the DOI submitted a final environmental impact statement (EIS), recommending that the coastal plain be open for leasing and that although the DOI admits that “activities associated with oil and gas development — including new roads and truck traffic, as well as air, noise and water pollution — could potentially harm wildlife,” the statement claims that measures can be taken to minimize the disturbance to wildlife by heavy machinery, such as not operating in certain areas for a month out of the year, so as not to disturb calving caribou.

With a supporting environmental impact statement approved by the Trump-nominated Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, the Trump administration, on August 17, 2020, released a Record of Decision, outlining a plan for where and under what terms and conditions leasing for the oil and gas development program will occur on the refuge’s coastal plain. Trump’s Record of Decision makes “the approximately 1,563,500 acres, or the entire Coastal Plain program area, available for oil and gas leasing, and consequently for potential future exploration, development and transportation.” The decision orders the Interior Secretary and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to make at least two area-wide lease sales of no less than 400,000 acres each, by December 22, 2024, with the first sale by December 22, 2021 (Even if Donald Trump does not win reelection in November, it could be quite difficult for his successor to reverse any lease rights that have already been auctioned off to energy companies). Trump’s Decision also states that the BLM is required to authorize “any rights-of-way or easements across the Coastal Plain for the exploration, development, production, or transportation necessary to carry out [the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Program].” This means that the BLM has the ability to approve the building of any new road, pipeline, or other infrastructure for anyone, even if they don’t have a lease in the area, for any reason that might aid the gas and oil industry in the region.


Republican Senator from Alaska, Dan Sullivan, supports the new Record of Decision, saying, “Thousands of Alaskans are employed in our oil industry, and their livelihoods depend on the good-paying jobs created by our state’s reserves. Today, we are one step closer to securing a bright future for these Alaskans and their families.” Local energy firms and some Alaska Native groups also support the Decision, believing it could provide jobs for a state that has seen a decline in oil production since the 1980’s.

Republican Senator, Lisa Murkowski and Republican Governor of Alaska, Michael J. Dunleavy both agree. Murkowski says, “New opportunity in the 1002 Area is needed both now, as Alaskans navigate incredibly challenging times, and well into the future as we seek a lasting economic foundation for our state.” Governor Dunleavy proclaims, “The Record of Decision is a definitive step in the right direction to developing this area’s energy potential – between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil reserves.” Republican Congressman Don Young also praises the Decision, proclaiming, “In Alaska, we have proven that protecting the environment, honoring our history, and developing our natural resources can go hand-in-hand.”

Environmentalists, however, are not so convinced. Many criticize the DOI’s latest environmental impact statement, claiming that the review was rushed, insufficient, and “largely based on older research,” as well as “failed to address several concerns,” such as not providing an estimate of how many polar bears could potentially be killed or harmed by exploration in the coastal plain. Opponents to drilling in the area also say the Interior Department downplayed the climate change risks in its review. The agency’s impact statement claims the greenhouse gas emissions that would ultimately result from the drilling of 11 billion barrels of oil would be minimal, “since most of that oil would simply displace oil being produced elsewhere in the country.” Attorneys general from 15 different states have submitted comments to the Interior Department, calling this displacement theory “completely unsupported.”

Banks including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase say they will not directly finance any oil and gas drilling operations in the Arctic, because of pressure from environmental groups and the Gwich’in Alaska Native group. The caribou are a primary subsistence food for the Gwich’in, and they are fearful of the development’s potential negative impact on the Porcupine caribou herds that come to the area to calve. The Gwich’in believe the leasing of the land they refer to as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” is a violation of their human rights.

Exploring and drilling for oil in the Arctic is a costly operation, and it is unclear how interested the industry really is. For a large company with public name recognition, the project carries a lot of stigma and the possibility of “litigation, investor anger and a tarnished brand.” Robert Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law and former deputy interior secretary under President Barack Obama says of the program, “You’ve got a lot of tripwires ahead.  Anyone buying a lease is potentially buying years of litigation along with that lease.”

Critics of Trump’s move are also unsure about how profitable the lease sale program could even be for the Federal Government. Little is known about how much oil sits under the coastal plain. The last seismic studies to identify possible oil and gas reservoirs were performed back in the ‘80’s when the technology was far inferior to today’s, and according to the New York Times, evidence shows that “The only well ever drilled within the refuge’s boundaries was a disappointment.” Even Governor Dunleavey referred to the estimated oil reserves as only “technically recoverable.”

Opponents to the oil and gas program believe that opening the refuge’s coastal plain to fossil fuel energy development “would be a step backward” in an era when the majority of Americans believe we should be burning less fossil fuels and doing more to fight climate change. Environmental groups argue that drilling could harm the already vulnerable and struggling wildlife in the area and that concerns from the Gwich’in Tribal Council and Vuntut Gwich’in Government have been largely ignored.

Most analysts seem to agree that drilling for oil and gas in the 1002 Coastal Plain area of the ANWR comes with a lot of uncertainty and risk, and that the highly contested area “will have far more meaning and value as a wildlife refuge in a warming world that is starting to seriously move away from hydrocarbon energy.” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney with the environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, makes a strong point when she says, “There’s no good time to open up America’s largest wildlife refuge to drilling and fracking, but it’s absolutely bonkers to endanger this beautiful place during a worldwide oil glut.”

Environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Alaska Wilderness League, and some Alaska Native groups are expected to file lawsuits to try to block any lease sales of the coastal plain land. Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League wrote in a statement, “We will continue to fight this at every turn. Any oil company that would seek to drill in the Arctic Refuge will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks.” The climate plan for Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr. calls for permanent protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the banning of new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.

Resistance Resources

  • Center for Biological Diversity Working to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/
  • Alaska Wilderness League The Alaska Wilderness League (AWL) is a nonprofit organization that works to protect Alaska’s most significant wild lands from oil and gas drilling and from other industrial threats. The Alaska Wilderness League galvanizes support to secure vital policies that protect and defend America’s last great wild public lands and waters. https://www.alaskawild.org/
  • Gwich’in Alaska Native group Established in 1992, the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) is an indigenous organization that represents Gwich’in Participants in the Mackenzie-Delta of the Northwest Territories and across Canada. The Gwich’in have traditionally used and occupied lands in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon from time immemorial. https://gwichintribal.ca/

Learn More

Interior Press. (2020, August 17). Secretary Bernhardt Signs Decision to Implement the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in Alaska. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/secretary-bernhardt-signs-decision-implement-coastal-plain-oil-and-gas-leasing-program

Montgomery, S. L. (2020, August 21). Trump greenlights drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but will oil companies show up? Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/trump-greenlights-drilling-in-the-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge-but-will-oil-companies-show-up-144715

Plumer, B., & Fountain, H. (2020, August 17). Trump Administration Finalizes Plan to Open Arctic Refuge to Drilling. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/17/climate/alaska-oil-drilling-anwr.html?name=styln-climate

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. (2020, August 17). Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program Record of Decision. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://eplanning.blm.gov/public_projects/102555/200241580/20024135/250030339/Coastal%20Plain%20Record%20of%20Decision.pdf

USGS. (1998). Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 1002 Area, Petroleum … Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-0028-01/fs-0028-01.pdf

Vuntut Gwitchin Government and Gwich’in Tribal Council. (2020, August 18). VGG and GTC Joint Response to Record of Decision for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas. Retrieved August 24, 2020, from https://gwichintribal.ca/about-gtc/news/vgg-and-gtc-joint-response-record-decision-coastal-plain-oil-and-gas

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