The Trump administration is taking final steps to let oil and gas companies drill in the ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) – which environment advocates call the nation’s “last great wilderness”.

The US interior department will auction leases before the end of the year, secretary David Bernhardt told the Wall Street Journal. That could make it harder for Democrats to reverse the decision if Joe Biden wins the election in November.

The 19-million-acre refuge in north-east Alaska is a wellspring for wildlife. The move will open up the 1.6 million-acre coastal plane, where polar bears and foxes reside and to or through which millions of migratory birds fly. The porcupine caribou herd is critically important to the indigenous Gwich’in people, many of whom make their homes on or near its migration route.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain and birth place and nursery grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.

“This is our nation’s last great wilderness,” said Adam Kolton, the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “Nowhere else in the five-nation circle polar north do you have such abundant and diverse wildlife.”

The lease sales will set off legal battles. Environmental groups and tribes argue that the administration’s assessment of environmental risks was flawed.

Bernadette Demienti, executive director of the Gwich’in steering committee, said her tribe has had a spiritual and cultural connection to the porcupine caribou “since time immemorial”.

The caribou are already changing their migration paths because of global heating caused by fossil fuel use, which is happening at a much faster rate in the Arctic than the rest of the world, Demienti said.

Arctic Caribou
Photo: Pinterest

It is unclear if oil companies will be interested in drilling in the area any time soon, because oil is cheap and abundant elsewhere.

Five of the largest US banks have said they will not finance ANWR projects.

Kolton said any company considering bidding on leases needs to be “cognizant of the enormous reputational, political and financial risks”.

Polls show a majority of Americans oppose drilling in ANWR.

“There’s no good time to open up America’s largest wildlife refuge to drilling, but it’s absolutely bonkers to endanger this beautiful place during a worldwide oil glut,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.

“An oil spill in this special sanctuary could devastate polar bears and caribou and cause irreparable harm to a pristine Arctic ecosystem. We’ve reached a dangerous new low in the Trump administration’s obsession with expanding the extraction of dirty fossil fuels.”

Source: The Guardian

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