The 19.3 million acres of tundra that make up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) have long been at the center of debates about drilling for oil and gas. They are home to iconic polar bears, more than 200 species of birds, and caribou herds essential to both Alaskan Native and First Nations communities.
On August 17, 2020, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt opened up 1.56 million acres of the Refuge’s Coastal Plain to drilling with an oil and gas leasing program. This area is sacred to the Gwich’in Nation because it serves as the calving and nursery grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd that sustains them and their cultural traditions. And as has been the case for decades, the Gwich’in have again teamed up with environmental groups in protest. The video above was created by non-profit Braided River and the Campion Advocacy Fund to elevate Gwich’in voices in defense of the Refuge.
On August 24—one week after the oil and gas leasing program got the green light—two lawsuits were filed to try and stop it.
“We have lived and thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years. We have listened and learned from our elders, and we know we must stand united to protect future generations,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which filed the first lawsuit along with a dozen other environmental organizations in Alaska and Canada, in a press release. “[The] decision to violate lands sacred to my people and essential to the health of the Porcupine caribou herd is an attack on our rights, our culture and our way of life.”
The first case argues that the program’s environmental impact statement was rushed and that by opening the area to drilling leases, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to comply with federal laws, among them the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Wilderness Act.
“The scheme to drill this national treasure has always been morally wrong, but the process the Trump administration is utilizing to get development steamrolling ahead is flat out illegal,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, one of the plaintiffs in the case, in a press release. “Science has been trampled. The voices of the Gwich’in shunned. Environmental laws and even the bare bones requirements of the Tax Act have been ignored. This is a ruse masquerading as an environmental review and we will not stand idly by while Trump’s Interior Department seeks to auction off the wildest place left in America to the highest bidder.”
The second case was brought by environmental groups including the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth. It states, “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge … is our nation’s largest wildlife refuge and the largest preserve of any sort, where the natural environment still exists undisturbed by industrial development. The Coastal Plain is the biological heart of the Refuge.”
The Department of the Interior now has 60 days to respond.
What remains unclear is whether oil and gas companies will want to bid on the leases at all. At a time when the world is experiencing a glut of oil supply and prices are falling precipitously, the economic argument in favor of Arctic drilling has become less convincing. And as climate change continues to warm these ecosystems and threaten the tundra that supports so many human and animal inhabitants, the environmental argument against drilling is stronger than ever.
Breanna Draxler is a senior editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Native rights. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.