Op-Ed: Under cover of tax bill, Congress gives away the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — to drillers

Caribou along the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Dec. 1, 2003.
(Pete Souza / Chicago Tribune)

Please don’t call it ANWR. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not an acronym. We don’t refer to Yellowstone as YELL or Central Park as CEPA. By reducing it to four letters and leaving out those crucial words “national” and “refuge,” you’re liable to forget that this place belongs to all of us.

Conservationists have won the fight to keep oil drilling out of the Arctic refuge more than 50 times. But in conservation, you only get to lose once. The tax bill passed by Congress circumvents environmental laws and expedites oil drilling in the Arctic refuge. In four pages, it adds oil and gas development as a purpose of the Arctic refuge, opens 92,000 acres to oil and gas development immediately, mandates oil and gas leasing across the entire 1.5-million-acre Coastal Plain within 10 years, and takes management of the area out of the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For the record:

9:45 a.m. Jan. 8, 2018The original article suggested that the explorers Lewis and Clark saw the Brooks Range. They did not visit the area.

Americans should be outraged. The Arctic refuge, along with other wild places from Acadia to Zion, is our land. The places we choose to protect tell the story of who we are and what we value. Oil development in the Arctic—and mining in Bears Ears—will benefit corporations, not us.


Don’t trust Alaskans to do what is best for the Arctic refuge. I know, because I am one.

The nation is not so desperate that we need to get our oil from the Arctic refuge. The United States is now the world’s second-largest exporter of petroleum products. If we drove 5% less or 5% slower we could save more oil than by drilling in the refuge. Destroying our wild heritage to get oil is akin to burning the heirloom furniture just because we are too lazy to close the windows.

I have visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge every year for the past 32 years. I keep going back because it is one of the few places left on Earth that looks as it did centuries ago. When you stand on the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge you see a sweep of the Brooks Range 100 miles in each direction just as visitors did in the 1800s. This is the wild America that shaped our character and our destiny.

The Republican tax bill asserts that oil drilling will not affect the integrity of the Arctic refuge because the industrial footprint will cover just 2,000 acres. Picture Harvey Weinstein telling an actress that he only plans to violate a small part of her body. To the oil companies I say: “No matter how small your drill rig, keep it out of my refuge.”

Don’t trust Alaskans to do what is best for the Arctic refuge. I know, because I am one. Alaska is a bought-and-paid for banana republic. We Alaskans pay no state taxes on any type of personal income, and we receive an annual permanent fund pay-out thanks to Big Oil. Despite the hellish 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which showed the true risks of oil development in Alaska, of course Alaskans want Arctic refuge oil — it puts more money in our pockets. Alaska’s politicians have fought against preservation at every step since President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980.

We can reverse this craven congressional mistake, but our work just got much harder. We will need to fight hard to change the balance of partisan power in 2018 and then replace this giveaway with a wilderness designation. If the bulldozers start up, we will be there physically to greet them. In the meantime, drive slower and drive less. If the price of oil stays low, Big Oil can’t afford to drill in the Arctic refuge.

We all have our sacred places: the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We may never set foot in them, but these places offer us spiritual refuge even from a great distance. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is still here for you, but Congress just gave away the keys to the sanctuary.


Brad Meiklejohn is an Alaska explorer and conservationist, past president of the Patagonia Land Trust, and past president of the American Packrafting Assn.

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