Years ago, camping in Alaska’s Arctic national wildlife refuge, I watched a herd of caribou – 100,000 bulls, cows and their three-week-old calves – braid over the tundra, moving to a rhythm as old as the wind.
“Not many places like this left today,” said my friend Jeff, sitting next to me above an ice-fringed river.
And so Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski believes this refuge – 80 miles east of Prudhoe Bay – could generate $1bn over 10 years once it’s opened to oil leasing. She and her Republican colleagues slipped this drilling provision into the Senate Republican tax bill. Murkowski repeatedly says this development would cover just 2,000 acres, “about one ten-thousandth of ANWR”.
The acronym ANWR conveniently deletes the words “wildlife” and “refuge”, with no regard for the polar bears, Arctic fox, musk oxen and migratory ground-nesting birds that come there every summer, some species from as far away as Patagonia.
Alaska’s lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott, has said that drilling in ANWR is necessary to deal with climate change. His caddywhompus logic: we need to drill for more oil to raise money to address a problem that’s caused by humanity’s addiction to oil. Why not just say the truth? We want the money. Murkowski adds: “We have waited nearly 40 years for the right technology to come along for a footprint small enough for the environment to be respected.” They have not.
Alaskans have been trying to drill here for decades, using one crazy rationale after another. At one hearing the state’s lone congressman, Don Young, put a blue pen mark on his nose to show how small the industry footprint would be. Clever man. The development would in fact be a spider web of roads, pipelines, well pads and landing strips smack in the middle of the biological heart of the refuge. It would look less like a refuge and more like Prudhoe Bay, where thousands of spills have been reported.
Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington says the whole idea is “ludicrous”, noting that the Republican tax plan would add roughly $1.5tn to the national deficit in five years [with the richest 1% of Americans reaping half of the tax cuts]. “I am disturbed,” she says. She should be.
Christopher Lewis, a retired BP manager of exploration, has said: “I do not believe that there are any adequate, commercially viable reservoirs in the Arctic refuge.” The reality is “there are other less sensitive and less costly places to explore”.
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