US authorises drilling in the Arctic Wilderness
Perhaps it was the incredible and unprecedented scenes of destruction at the very heart of government in early January that permitted what has been described as Donald Trump’s final act of environmental vandalism to slip by almost unnoticed. For whilst the storming of Congress and subsequent rioting of the Capitol building has received worldwide Press condemnation, the Trump administration’s last-minute selling off of oil drilling leases in the environmentally priceless and long-protected Arctic National Wildlife Reserve received scant media coverage. The Arctic coastal plain is home to numerous migrating birds, Arctic wolves, foxes, threatened Porcupine caribou, and, importantly, “denning” polar bears. “Denning” is the process by which pregnant polar bears dig a large hole to create a den in which the bear gives birth, emerging after three months having survived on reserved body fat.
The sell-off of around 600,000 of the 1.6 million acre refuge to oil companies was part of the previous Trump administration’s plan to pay for Republican tax cuts with oil revenue. Conservatives had long-argued that drilling leases could bring in around $900m, but far from bringing the anticipated cash boost to government coffers, the lease sales fell dramatically short of the target with almost zero
interest from the big oil companies. Bids on the 11 available tracts of land totalled just $14m, forcing the state of Alaska itself into the awkward position of having to lease most of it and hope for future sales.
But the clear message from jubilant environmental advocates and watchdogs is that the times really are changing. Fossil fuel production in the Arctic refuge, they say, would hugely impact the indigenous people who rely on the wildlife for subsistence. They further claim that the leasing of public land is a bad deal for the country. Oil is currently in low demand and public scrutiny of the industry’s role in the climate crisis and damage to sensitive habitats means that drilling for new oil and gas when the planet is already experiencing dangerous levels of heating would be irresponsible. Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League,
described the lease sale as an “epic failure” for both the Trump administration and the Alaska congressional delegation. He added, “After years of promising a revenue and jobs bonanza they ended up throwing a party for themselves, with the state being one of the only bidders.”
What our surveys show
President Biden has already put a moratorium on drilling, but with Covid and Brexit dominating headlines here over the past year our survey showed a mere 8% of us being ‘”very aware” that the previous administration had approved it in the first place. A further 14% said they were “fairly aware,” while 29% said they were “fairly unaware”. A much larger 49% reported that they were “not at all aware”. The British government has supported US policy of exploring the Arctic for fossil fuels.
But the response to our survey suggests that the public now strongly believes the UK should support Biden and reverse that policy and call on the US Congress to revoke drilling licenses; that it is time for Boris Johnson to live up to his claim of being a “green Tory.” A huge majority, 79%, either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported such moves, while 17% either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed them. An even larger majority, 89%, agreed that the UK government should prioritise the development of renewable energy sources rather than finding more fossil fuels, with just 6% still in favour of maintaining the focus on fossil fuels.