The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a wildlife haven located in northern Alaska that encompasses one of the world’s last remaining intact arctic tundra landscapes. Originally designated as a refuge in 1960, ANWR is a region of stunning biodiversity characterized by rolling tundra, braided rivers, wetlands, estuaries, and seashores that provides habitat for around 700 species of animals and plants, including 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species.
The sanctity of ANWR’s fragile ecosystems, however, may be coming to an end. While much of the refuge was designated as wilderness, a critical area—ANWR’s coastal plain—was not. The coastal plain is a vital breeding and birthing ground for many species. This area has long been coveted by industry because of the potential oil and gas reserves beneath its surface. Yet, despite decades of attempts to open the area to drilling, the coastal plain has remained undeveloped and pristine.
All this changed in December 2017, when Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, pursuant to a provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Tax Act), proposed to open the coastal plain for oil and gas development. Despite polls demonstrating that approximately 70 percent of Americans oppose such drilling, the Tax Act mandated opening a minimum of 800,000 acres of land to drilling by the end of 2024.
The potential impacts of oil and gas development on wildlife in the coastal plain are alarming. Such impacts include habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation; increases in mortality; lower reproductive success; and adverse health effects.
The Porcupine caribou herd and the region’s polar bears are particularly vulnerable. The herd migrates to ANWR’s coastal plain during calving season, a long-distance journey it has undertaken for thousands of years. Numerous studies have shown that industrial activity disturbs caribou, altering their behavioral patterns and decreasing calf survival.
For polar bears, the coastal plain hosts the highest density of dens in Alaska and represents a critically important birthing area. Studies indicate that denning polar bears disturbed by oil and gas development activities may abandon dens before their young can survive the winter.
To initiate the opening of the coastal plain, the Bureau of Land Management solicited public input on the issues it should address concerning the environmental impacts of oil and gas development. In response, AWI identified a variety of issues that the agency must consider, including the impact on wildlife, climate change, air and water quality, and indigenous communities.
According to the US Geological Service, the coastal plain may contain 4.3 to 11.8 billion barrels of oil. With Americans consuming 7.2 billion barrels of oil per year, ANWR may provide, at most, another 7 to 20 months of oil. Degrading a pristine environment and harming numerous wildlife species to feed a small part of our energy needs is shortsighted, particularly when—given climate change and the pollution associated with fossil fuel development and use—we should be moving away from a fossil fuel–based economy.