Congress established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1980 and decreed four purposes for the Refuge: to conserve fish and wildlife, to fulfill international treaties for conserving fish and wildlife, to provide for subsistence hunting, and to protect water resources. Nearly 40 years later, Congress inserted a rider into the 2017 tax bill to add a fifth purpose to the Arctic Refuge: to provide for an oil and gas program on the coastal plain. The Trump administration is now moving forward to pursue this fifth purpose.
But developing an oil and gas program in the Refuge is still subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (also called “NEPA”). Enacted in 1970, NEPA requires the federal government to carefully analyze any action that will impact the environment, and fully explain its decision to the public. The Trump administration will need to look at relevant data and information and explain its rationale before it can move ahead with an Arctic Refuge oil and gas program. The first step in NEPA is scoping, which is literally scoping out all the issues that the government will consider in the following step, the environmental impact statement (EIS). A scoping comment period for the Arctic Refuge oil and gas program is now open through June 19.
Audubon Alaska will submit technical comments for the Arctic Refuge scoping period. A few of our concerns and questions involve vehicle tracks on tundra vegetation, caribou response to infrastructure, and oil spill impacts on nearby bird populations. The coastal plain in the Arctic Refuge is also much narrower than in other parts of the Arctic, and (up until now) has been the biological heart of the only holistically protected Arctic ecosystem in the U.S. Creating a new web of infrastructure in the Refuge coastal plain will raise a new set of questions that have never before been considered.
Audubon is also very concerned with reports that the administration and other officials will expedite the NEPA process to finalize its decision by 2019. Oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Refuge is unprecedented, poses complex scientific questions, and raises concerns with the treatment of our nation’s wildlife refuges. Rushing through NEPA does not tend to give rise to an informed decision, nor is it likely to grant enough time for an adequate explanation to the public.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is public land that belongs to all Americans. The administration is asking the public for input on a decision that will shape the future of America’s Arctic. Now is the time to step forward and make your voice heard.