Congress allows drilling in Arctic Refuge
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Congress allows drilling in Arctic Refuge

Today, Congress used a fast-track budget process to force through a measure opening the crown jewel of the Wildlife Refuge System — the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — to oil and gas development.

Congress allows drilling in the Arctic Refuge through a tax bill, but the fight has just begun. Rest assured that the fight to protect the Arctic Refuge has just begun. The majority of Americans want the Arctic Refuge protected, yet the GOP majority used a budget process that buried the drill bill in larger legislation that eluded full, fair and open debate.

Many of us were watching and speaking out, however, and many more Americans just learned how Congress ignored their wishes.

The drill bill undermines the very purpose of the Refuge System

Oil and gas development is completely at odds with the purpose of the Arctic Refuge and will permanently destroy one of America’s wildest and most treasured public lands.

The Arctic Refuge has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. President Dwight Eisenhower first set aside the Arctic Refuge area in 1960 “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.”  In 1980, Congress expanded the range and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The purpose of the Refuge has always been to protect wildlife and preserve a cultural way of life that has persisted for millennia.

The drill language in the tax bill that passed today—written and championed by Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski—mandates oil and gas leasing and development on the coastal plain. It makes oil and gas development a primary purpose in the coastal plain. It provides none of the promised protections and strips the Refuge of its original purpose.

Bad actions affect the most vulnerable and those without a voice

The word “refuge” means “shelter or protection from danger, trouble.” But danger is exactly what the Arctic Refuge faces now more than ever.

Because of its significance as the birthing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the Refuge’s coastal plain—the biological heart of the Refuge—is called “the place where life begins” by the Gwich’in people. The Gwich’in, whose traditional lands extend across Northern Alaska and Western Canada, rely heavily on the Porcupine Caribou Herd to support their subsistence way of life.

The coastal plain is also home to numerous other species, including polar bears, musk ox, and hundreds of species of migratory birds.

A tax bill of shady dealing

The Republican majority used the budget process with limited debate and transparency to push through a tax bill that includes a rider opening the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to drilling.

Substantive measures like this should be subject to robust debate and require 60 Senate votes to reach the President’s desk. Not so today. The GOP used instead a fast-track budget process that, at worst, denies Americans adequate time to speak their minds, and at best, keeps them from fully understanding the implications of Congress’ actions.

Contrary to the rhetoric of Senator Murkowski and others, the roughly $1-billion-dollar revenue estimate for oil and gas leasing in the Refuge is completely out of touch with reality. This is in no way about the budget process; it is about ramming through a controversial measure to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling, contrary to the will of the American people. The dribble of revenue it might produce won’t put a dent in the well over $1 trillion it will add to the national debt, partly through huge tax cuts to corporations and the super wealthy.

Olaus and Mardy Murie (1956 photo) worked toward establishment of the Arctic Refuge.

Don’t give up, we are in it for the long haul

The law that just passed is completely at odds with the very purpose of the Arctic Refuge, but it cannot change the force of resistance by the majority of Americans who oppose putting an unparalleled wild place at risk and destroying its very mission.

It goes against the will of the majority of Americans. We cry, “Foul!” on Senator Murkowski and the Alaska Congressional Delegation for circumventing the regular legislative process and the majority of Americans to pander to big oil.

Unifying our resolve

This underhanded assault on the Arctic Refuge is a dark mark on our country’s long conservation legacy. The Arctic Refuge is part of our country’s shared public lands legacy and should be permanently protected.

As conservationist Marty Murie stated, “I hope that the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor that she cannot afford to keep them.”

There is no financial or other reason for Congress to sell off one of our most magnificent public lands for oil and gas development. Future generations are likely to look back with shame at this shortsighted decision to sell off one of our most precious public lands.

Trustees and our partners will continue fighting to protect the Arctic Refuge every step of the way. Our wild lands nurture our American spirit and our continued health. The resilience of the Arctic Refuge and all wild places relies on our unified resolve to protect our public lands, public processes, waters, wildlife, communities and people.