Renewed Arctic Refuge Drilling Push By Alaska Governor

NWF Seeks Permanent Protection for Imperiled Coastal Plain

Tundra swans are some of the waterfowl that breed on the delta in the Arctic Refuge. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Andrew Lincoln
As we continue to celebrate National Wildlife Refuge Week, the pristine wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the subject of our newest report), is under threat from onshore oil and gas development.

In the wake of Shell’s decision to abandon plans for further drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Alaska’s Governor Bill Walker sounded a familiar tune: calling yet again for Congress to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Governor argues that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) needs new sources of oil, and if that can’t come from offshore then it should come from the Arctic Refuge, which has been protected from such activity for more than half a century. 

Yet onshore drilling in the refuge will destroy important habitat for many wildlife species. The Coastal Plain is the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge, with a diversity and abundance of wildlife. It provides important breeding and staging areas for migration for many species of shorebirds and waterfowl and other wildlife. The Porcupine Caribou Herd is perhaps the most well-known species, as it frequents the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge by the tens of thousands during the spring and summer, often during their critical calving season.

Caribou are one of the many wildlife species living in the Arctic Refuge. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Eric Hatch
person at Arctic Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an important place for wildlife and people. Photo Credit: Steve Chase, USFWS
When oil first started flowing through TAPS in 1977, its original life expectancy was 35 years. The acclaimed energy expert Amory Lovins lays out in Forbes why it’s a mistake to believe that TAPS could easily handle potential refuge oil more than 20 years past its design life.

Lovins makes the case that refuge oil is like “Fool’s Gold” for Alaska with both economics and geology working against the prospect of finding oil, especially oil that would be cost effective to produce. National Geographic earlier gave credence to this view when it quoted a source saying the only test wells ever drilled in the area by Chevron in the mid-80’s were dry holes.

Whether there is truly commercially recoverable oil beneath the Arctic Refuge that might extend TAPS misses the larger point. This is a National Wildlife Refuge for which all Americans have a shared stake and ownership. Even under some of the rosiest estimates, drilling the Arctic Refuge might meet less than 5% of U.S. oil demand at peak production.

Arctic graph
Table from NWF’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge report
The question all Americans need to answer is whether it’s worth sacrificing this incredibly important area for wildlife and this majestic and iconic wilderness. For his part, President Obama has called on Congress to pass legislation forever protecting the threatened part of the Arctic Refuge as designated Wilderness, the highest level of protection that can be afforded our public lands.

Take ActionHelp NWF protect wildlife and the wilderness in the Arctic Refuge.


To learn more about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the potential impact from oil and gas development, check out National Wildlife Federation’s new report.