State Attorneys General Join the Fight to Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Look at that.
Photo: Getty

The first public comment period related to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is officially over, but the real effort to protect Alaska’s vast pristine space is only starting to heat up.

A group of 16 state attorneys general submitted a 143-page document laying out all their concerns with the Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental impact statement for leasing land to oil and gas interests as an official comment. The attorneys general—led by Bob Ferguson in Washington and Maura Healey in Massachusetts—are especially concerned with the draft statement’s incomplete picture around reported economic benefits of drilling in ANWR’s coastal plain, which may contain some 8 billion barrels of oil.

Opponents have been keeping a watchful eye on the Trump Administration’s efforts to open up ANWR ever since Congress snuck a provision allowing such activity into a tax reform bill in 2017. Earlier this week, watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility accused the Department of Interior, which would be overseeing any extraction at the refuge, of hiding key documents from the public to push development forward more quickly. Now, this coalition of state attorneys general is saying that the Interior Department hasn’t included relevant details—like potential impacts on climate change and the environment—that are required by law.

“In its haste to issue oil leases, the Trump administration has failed to take the legally-required ‘hard look’ at the severe environmental impacts of industrializing the Coastal Plain, the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge,” said David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University, in a press release.

On top of that, scientists still don’t have a full grasp on how the introduction of oil and gas infrastructure may impact the area’s wildlife, including polar bears and caribou that roam in the 1.6 million-acre Coastal Plain where any drilling would take place. The Porcupine caribou herd, in particular, is of concern to the local Gwich’in First Nation, whose members rely on the animal for food. It’s also an integral piece of their culture and identity.

If the federal government doesn’t address these concerns in its final environmental impact statement, attorneys general may have ground to sue. And this thorough comment is clearly making the accusation that the way the draft statement stands, it violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

Seismic testing was slated to begin this past winter to find out how much oil and gas potential the Coastal Plain holds, but it’s been pushed back to this coming winter in December. Environmental groups and some Alaska Natives have been championing every delay along the way, and now state officials from across the U.S. have officially joined the opposition.

What happens next may prove pivotal in keeping the ANWR pristine.

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