Bill McKibben warns Big Oil of ‘fierce public outrage’ facing any driller in Alaska’s wildlife refuge

Man in the Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Flickr / Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The raging pandemic on the world’s hands has grounded jets, emptied out offices, and shut down factories — meaning a whole lot of oil isn’t being used to power up anything right now.

Many would think business in oil doesn’t make sense at the moment. But the Trump administration has announced controversial plans to open up Alaska’s vast, untouched Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling.

Earlier this week, former oil and gas lobbyist and current U.S. Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, boasted that the administration’s oil and gas program in the land of polar bears could “create thousands of new jobs and generate tens of billions of dollars.”

But do we need more oil right now? Here are 6 reasons why drilling in the Arctic is a bad idea:

1. There’s already too much oil

An oil pipeline in Alaska

Flickr / offehoff

Russia and Saudi Arabia’s bitter battle over oil prices earlier this year flooded the market with excess crude. But with the pandemic raging on and life coming to a stand-still, who is even buying this oil?

It also saw U.S. oil prices crashing below zero for the first time in history. As if that’s not enough, the number of functioning U.S. oil and gas rigs that indicate future production of oil has also collapsed to the lowest levels since 1940. 

Michael Tran, director of global energy strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told CNN:

“Given the perpetual oversupply, the market does not need more drilling, and tighter budgets likely means that the industry is lacking the capital to do it.”

2. Where’s the money?

Piles of money


This is a triple-edged sword.

Green-conscious investors want oil companies to cut down on fossil fuels and embrace cleaner energy, not the other way around. This means that oil giants may have a hard time raising the cash required for exploring the vast Arctic region.

Banks like Wells Fargo, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup have also rejected funding and nixed investments to drilling projects in the Arctic.

After wading through legal bills from environmentalists and tribal groups, more money will be required for everything from new equipment to manpower and electricity as this area is prime wilderness. Per Magnus, head of analysis at Rystad Energy, told CNN Business, “ANWR could be a very expensive zone to start in. It has little infrastructure,”

3. It has massive environmental costs

A polar bear


Critics have said that aside from causing irreversible damage to the landscape encompassing 19 million acres, it could adversely affect several animal species including grizzly bears, polar bears, gray wolves, caribou, and arctic foxes which call the ANWR home.

A 2019 report by the Scientific American exposes the Interior Department’s own admission that their plan may lead to “extinctions” in the Alaskan region. The department said that 69 of 157 bird species found in the area could be at particular risk.

Two of those species — the Steller’s eider and the spectacled eider — are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The report also states that the drilling would increase emissions between 0.7 and 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide at a time when the world is grappling with climate change.

4. It hasn’t been tested enough for fossil fuels

A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

USFWS / Susanne Miller

According to scientists, ANWR’s sloping terrain and scarcity of water don’t exactly make it the perfect spot for drilling.

In fact, ANWR has only been tested once to see if fossil fuels can even be extracted from the region. Despite lacking in crucial testing, a precursor to drilling, U.S. Interior Secretary Bernhardt said companies could bid for drilling leases nevertheless.

5. It will impact indigenous people — for the worse

Ruben Gallego with Gwich'in people during a protest on Capitol Hill


Local tribes like the Gwich’in people rely on the caribou at the Refuge for sustenance.

“That’s the heart and soul of Mother Earth that’s being messed with up there,” Michael Peter a member of the Gwichyaa Zee Gwich’in Tribal Government told the BLM at a public forum held in Alaska in 2019.

At the same forum, another Gwichyaa leader, Richard Carroll, noted that the U.S. government wasn’t even considering the Gwich’in people before chalking up plans to drill in ANWR.

6. Americans don’t want it

Climate protestors holding signs

Flickr / John Englart

In a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 79% of U.S. adults said that it was more important to develop alternative energy sources such as wind and solar instead of expanding production of oil, coal, and natural gas.

In the same survey, 6 in 10 U.S. adults (62%) said that the federal government is doing too little to protect animals and their habitats, while a little over half (54%) said the same about the government’s efforts to protect open lands in national parks.

Editors note: This article was produced in partnership with Earth Day Network. In a democracy, every voice matters. Click here to pledge to vote on environmental progress in 2020.

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