This past summer I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – the largest national wildlife refuge in the nation and home to spectacular wildlife that have sustained Indigenous peoples for millennia. Covering 19.6M acres in the northeastern corner of Alaska, the Arctic Refuge is like no place I’ve ever seen. Nestled against the backdrop of the wild and rugged Brooks Mountain range, braided rivers cut through rolling hills and fragile tundra that support life of all shapes and sizes – from the mosaic of colorful wildflowers dotting the landscape to the Porcupine Caribou Herd embarking on the longest land migration in the world. It’s hard to imagine how “America’s Serengeti,” a place so full of life and color, could ever be dismissed as a “flat, white nothingness” unworthy of protection.
For more than six decades, the Arctic Refuge and the greater American Arctic have been at the center of a heated debate over oil and gas development. Comprised of two units of federal land on Alaska’s North Slope – the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge) and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Western Arctic Reserve) – America’s Arctic covers an area larger than the State of Florida and plays an integral role in the health of our planet’s climate as well as the well-being and food security of local Indigenous communities.
This September, the Biden administration announced three actions to strengthen protections across America’s Arctic, including two measures that address the illegal Trump-era oil and gas program in the Arctic Refuge and a proposed regulation to protect 13M acres in the Reserve. Taken together, these announcements bring us one step closer to meaningfully protecting this critical region from new oil and gas development.
What was announced?
The Arctic Refuge was opened to fossil fuel extraction under President Trump following the passage of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. That law mandated two oil and gas lease sales on Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge – a culturally irreplaceable landscape the Gwich’in people refer to as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.
In September, the Department of the Interior cancelled all remaining oil and gas leases on the Coastal Plain that were unlawfully issued under President Trump due to the extremely flawed environmental analysis that underpinned the sale. In addition to cancelling all leases in the Arctic Refuge, the Bidenadministration also announced a new environmental review for the Arctic Refuge oil and gas leasing program to ensure that the congressionally mandated second lease sale recognizes and prioritizes conservation and the rights of Indigenous communities.
The announcement also included a draft regulation that would bolster protections for 13M acres of unleased land in the Western Arctic Reserve. Also known as the Western Arctic, this 23M acre landscape is the single largest unit of public land in the nation and, as one of the last intact ecosystems left in the country, is key to achieving U.S. climate and biodiversity goals.
These recent actions by the Biden administration represent a significant step towards meaningfully protecting America’s Arctic and demonstrate President Biden’s commitment to our climate and the rights of Indigenous communities.
Although this was an important victory in our fight to protect the Arctic, additional actions are needed to address the remaining threats of oil and gas development in this critical region, especially the 2.5M acres of already leased land in the Western Arctic near the Willow Project.
For more than 60 years, Americans from across the country and all walks of life have been fighting to protect America’s Arctic. As I sat on the tundra this past summer, basking in the midnight sun, I couldn’t help but think about every person who took the time to mail a postcard to their elected officials, the Members of Congress who stood for protection, and the tireless advocacy of Indigenous leaders fighting to protect their people and culture. I couldn’t — and won’t — stop thinking about how we must keep fighting to protect this irreplaceable and sacred place from oil and gas drilling.