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The Selawik River originates in Alaska's Purcell Mountains and runs through the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. After flowing into Selawik Lake, it empties into Kotzebue sound/the Chukchi Sea.
Katrina Mueller/USFWS
Environment

Tax Bill Allows Oil Drilling on Pristine Arctic Refuge

Although it seems irrelevant to personal and corporate tax rates, opening up the “largest and wildest” publicly-owned land in the US to oil drilling became a major objective for Republicans who crafted the recent tax bill, according to the New York Times.

Slipped into the legislation is a provision to allow industrial activity on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a pristine stretch of 19 million acres of land in Northern Alaska that is home to indigenous tribes, caribou herds, bears, hundreds of migratory bird species, vast forests, and much more.

The passage of the tax bill will end the latest chapter in a decades-long fight over the land, known as ANWR, representing a victory for Alaska’s lawmakers and oil companies who want to generate revenue and a loss for environmentalists and indigenous populations who see the protection of the land as vital for cultural, ecological, and economic integrity, the Times reports.  

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.jpgImage: Flickr / US Fish and Wildlife Service

“This is merely the latest gambit in a GOP campaign to liquidate our public lands and waters,” said Rhea Suh, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “We will fight at every turn to preserve the country’s treasured places for our children and grandchildren.”

Take Action: Stand Up for the Arctic

The unraveling of protections is an especially momentous achievement for Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who has worked to allow drilling on the refuge for many years, CNN reports. One reason why the region was even included in the tax bill is because Murkowski became the chairwoman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, according to CNN.

“This is a watershed moment for Alaska and all of America,” Murkowski said in a statement. “We have fought to open the 1002 Area for a very long time, and now, our day has finally arrived.”

Murkowski said in the statement that drilling on the part of the refuge known as the 1002 area could generate up to $60 billion for the state of Alaska, along with thousands of jobs. For a state that has faced budget constraints in recent years because of its dependency on oil at a time when fossil fuel prices have plummeted, the prospect of a surge of revenue is appealing.

Read More: Experts Say Arctic Drilling Makes Little Sense. So Why Is It Being Pushed?

Others, including economists and environmentalists who spoke with Global Citizen, argue that the refuge may not yield economic gains in the near future because it could take many years before leases are obtained and explored, as the New York Times notes. Further, they argue that opening up the refuge isn’t necessary because of the enormous reserves of oil that exist elsewhere in Alaska and throughout the US.

And they fear that the environmental, cultural, and even economic costs of drilling could be enormous. Oil prospecting and drilling are potentially destructive practices that could irreparably harm the refuge’s wildlife, strip indigenous populations of their livelihoods, and accelerate the impact of climate change in Alaska and the US.  

Read More: Trump Wants to Mine, Frack, and Log on Public Lands. Here’s Why That Can’t Happen.

Proponents of the decision, including Murkowski, argue that state rights trump federal protections and that the Alaskan people should be able to explore economic opportunities.

Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge-005.jpgImage: Hillebrand/USFWS

These two sides will be pitted against each other in legal battles over the next several months and years.  

“This is a shameful betrayal and a fraud on the American people,” said Suh of the NRDC. “The purpose of setting a sanctuary aside is to keep it safe from exactly this kind of industrial—and permanent—ruin.”

“The last thing the country needs is more fossil fuel development in a pristine and ecologically vital area,” she added.

Global Citizen partners with NRDC and campaigns on the protection of the Arctic Refuge. You can take action on this issue here.