Arctic wildlife refuge has value beyond $25 an acre in oil leases

by Deborah L. Williams

The pure, utter wildness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will overwhelm you. When I was there one June, I watched thousands of caribou migrating purposefully to their birthing grounds on the refuge’s coastal plain. The Porcupine caribou herd had once again traversed 400 miles to reach this incomparable place — remote, pristine, rich with resources for the mothers and their calves.

On Jan. 20, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that placed a temporary moratorium on all activities associated with the auction of refuge oil and gas leases. It was the first of several steps that need to be taken to reverse a terrible mistake involving this publicly owned, irreplaceable national treasure.

For more than 60 years, starting with President Dwight Eisenhower, Americans have worked to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America’s Serengeti. Repeatedly, efforts by the Alaska congressional delegation to open its coastal plain to oil and gas exploration and extraction have been successfully stopped. In 2017, however, during the rush to find money to help pay for, among other things, tax breaks for the wealthy, the Senate voted, by a slim 52-vote majority, to require two oil and gas lease auctions in the refuge.

The silver-tongued argument went this way: Holding two lease sales would generate more than $1.8 billion over 10 years. On

Jan. 6 the Trump administration conducted the first of the two prescribed auctions (the second is not yet scheduled). The sale did not, in fact, result in $1.8 billion in bids. It didn’t realize $900 million or even $100 million. The first sale generated just $12 million. No major oil company submitted a bid.

From the private sector, two small companies submitted bids: Knik Arm Services and Regenerate Alaska. Ever heard of them? Of course not. They each won one tract for a total of about 70,000 acres at less than $34 an acre.

In the pitifully attended auction, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a quasi-governmental entity and not an oil company at all, was the only bidder on seven other awarded tracts, totaling more than 365,000 acres. The state-based entity won its leases by bidding the minimum allowed, a mere $25 an acre.

Selling development rights to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most precious and valuable ecosystems on Earth, for $25 or $34 an acre is a national and international disgrace.

How many millions of dollars did the Trump administration spend to prepare for the first lease sale? That number has not been released, but based on other sales I’m familiar with, $3 million is a reasonable guess. This would mean the January auction netted around a measly $9 million.

Here is the good news. Environmental groups have filed compelling lawsuits charging that the processes and documents leading to the lease sale, including the critically important environmental impact statement, were legally flawed. As has happened with other improper lease deals, the federal courts can void these leases.

Congress must also act. Americans want the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protected for its extraordinary value — to the Indigenous Gwich’in people, and as wilderness, wildlife sanctuary and a still unspoiled, environmentally crucial ecosystem. The coastal plain is the birthing ground not only of the Porcupine caribou herd but also of threatened polar bears. Hundreds of thousands of snow geese often arrive annually to feed on cotton grass. The Gwich’in call the refuge “the sacred place where life begins.” As public land, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge belongs to all of us and to future generations. We still have the ability to keep it intact, flourishing and wild.

Understanding that it made a significant error the last time, one based on grossly incorrect assumptions, Congress now needs to amend the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to eliminate the Arctic refuge leasing provisions. No more American tax dollars should be wasted on pursuing reckless leasing in an incomparable area that no oil company of any credible size wants to develop.

We all make mistakes. Let’s thoughtfully, but adamantly, demand that Congress reverse this one.

Deborah L. Williams, a lecturer in the University of California, Santa Barbara, environmental studies department, has worked in the federal government and the nonprofit sector to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than 40 years.