Priority Campaign 2021

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

About the Author:
A lifelong Alaskan, Iditarod finisher, and Cornell graduate, Andy is also Alaska Wilderness League’s Alaska Director.  We’ve funded AWL’s work to protect and defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than a decade.

In the years to come, I’m certain we’ll look back on January 2021 for its significance in the campaign to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  It wasn’t always pretty, but at the end of it all… I think recent events have set us up for success in the months to come.
First, the low point.  On January 6 – as insurrectionists were storming the US Capitol and just two weeks before President Trump would leave office – the first (and ideally only) ever lease sale for the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain was held, during which rights to a majority of the 1.6-million-acres of pristine tundra were put on the auction block.  Only three bidders – the State of Alaska and two small companies – placed successful bids that day, with most leases going for the minimum bid of just $25/acre. The total sale brought in $12 million for 400,000 acres of drilling rights. All in all, this is less than 1% of the revenue that was projected when drilling proponents fought to justify the inclusion of a Refuge drilling mandate in the 2017 Tax Act. In the two weeks that followed, the Trump administration finalized these leases, and while we believe they are legally questionable, they are now in the hands of development interests.
Here’s why this wasn’t all bad: If you are a fan of turning the Arctic Refuge into an oil field, this was not the lease sale of your dreams.  No major oil companies even came to play.  In fact, it was the State of Alaska – through a state-funded development corporation known as AIDEA – who won 7 of 9 issued leases. AIDEA is essentially known as being the grim reaper of Alaska’ megaprojects, with a track record of dumping money into large extraction projects that no rational investor would ever back.  Further, AIDEA lacks the expertise and finances to develop Arctic Refuge oil on its own. As for the other two leases granted, one leasee, Knik Arm Services, is an Alaska based corporation with zero oil and gas experience. The other leasee is a subsidiary of 88 Energy, an Australian firm, who purchased just one small tract on the edge of the Arctic Refuge boundary. They too likely lack the resources to see development through in the years to come. Putting public pressure on these small companies and holding them accountable will be an important goal in the months ahead. 
So while the lease sale was a setback, the Trump administration proved that there’s virtually no industry interest to turn the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into an oil field. This only strengthens the case to undo the 2017 Tax Act mistake that authorizes an oil and gas program.

Porcupine Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto
And that is our number one goal in the year to come. On January 20, President Biden was sworn into office, and we were ecstatic when he took immediate executive action to halt any and all activity related to oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. That amazing administrative success came as a result of the tireless work over the past four years by supporters and partners like you!  At the same time, our legal challenge against the leasing program is pending before the court – coupled with other lawsuits brought by 15 state Attorneys General and several Gwich’in Tribal Councils – and it will be addressed in the months to come.  And finally, Congressional champions have once again introduced legislation that would undo the 2017 Tax Act mistake and reinstate protections for the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain.  We are grateful for the leadership of Senator Schumer, who in a meeting told Arctic Refuge champion Tommy Caldwell that protecting the Arctic Refuge will be a priority if he became Senate President this year; bill leads Representatives Huffman and Fitzpatrick and Senator Markey; as well as the many Members of Congress who have taken part in efforts to support protection of the Refuge over the past many years. We hope to work with all of our strong supporters to restore legislative protections for the Refuge this year.