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Editorial: The oil-drunk Trump administration needs to leave Alaska refuge alone

A polar bear walks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 12, 2003.
(Subhankar Banerjee / Associated Press)

The Trump administration thinks it would be a good idea to allow seismic testing in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to assess how much oil and gas might lie underground, a possible prelude to drilling in a pristine wilderness that provides a vital habitat for polar bears and a variety of other species. In reality, it’s a stupid idea, both as a matter of environmental policy and as an energy strategy, and the administration ought to drop it.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last month quietly asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “update” regulations to allow for seismic exploration of the coastal plain section of the more than 30,000-square-mile refuge in northeastern Alaska. The region is a breeding ground for caribou, a key migratory stop for birds, and increasingly home to polar bears losing hunting ground as the polar ice cap retreats. It would be beyond ironic for the government to let oil companies drill in the very ground directly imperiled — from receding sea ice to thawing permafrost — by the effects of global warming.

The refuge was declared off-limits to oil drilling more than 35 years ago, and Congress should have acted then to declare the unique landscape a national park. That would have ended what has become a tiresome and persistent effort by the oil industry and its political friends to start sinking wells and carving up the tundra with roads, wellheads and pipelines. And while drilling can’t occur without congressional approval, the administration can allow some testing in the region through regulatory changes. The proposed rule to allow that is due by the end of the month.

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Defenders of the proposal say that it makes sense to learn how much oil and gas lie beneath the refuge to inform decisions on whether to seek to pump it out. That’s a chimera. The refuge should not, and must not, be opened to drilling, so it doesn’t matter whether we know how much oil and gas might be there. Environmentalists also argue that just conducting seismic tests could be enough to damage the already fragile tundra.

This move by the Trump administration is part and parcel of its ill-conceived ambition to increase domestic gas and oil production and make the U.S. a dominant player in the very industry that is increasingly making the earth less habitable for humans. The future of the global environment hinges on the decisions we make now about our energy sources, and taking even a baby step toward developing new sources of fossil fuels — especially in one of the harshest climate zones in the world — would be foolhardy and dangerous.

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