In late December, Congress signed a new tax bill to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) after a 40-year ban on oil and and gas drilling of this area. This land in the ANWR, called the “1002 area,” is a 1.5 million acre stretch along the coastal plain. According to NPR, somewhere between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of oil is encased in this frozen plot. As great as this would be for economic benefit and for the oil industry within the United States, there is one big point people forget about.
The “1002 area” is on a National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of a system that provides habitat and protection for more than 380 threatened or endangered plants and animals across the nation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that 47 species of mammals, marine and terrestrial species use ANWR, not including the 42 fish species and over 200 migratory birds. So if it is such an important ecosystem to protect endangered and threatened species like caribou, wolves and polar bears, then why are we going to allow drilling to disrupt this natural preserve?
When the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed, Congress stated in the preamble that these species of wildlife and plants “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” If that statement is still true, then why would they prevent these species from thriving and staying truly protected from harm as this act intended? Congress also stated that the intent of the act should also conserve the ecosystems which these species depend on. Well here’s a newsflash: these species do depend on ANWR to survive. The ANWR mammals webpage clearly states that because of the geographic diversity of this land, many species are able to rely on this land like a winter home, including polar bears, whales during their summer migration and marmots who hibernate in crevices for nine months out of the year.
The over-exploitation of wildlife for commercial purposes, the introduction of harmful exotic organisms, environmental pollution and the spread of diseases also pose serious threats to species, and now the threat of oil drilling will be added to the list. This new plan will only work if oil companies will buy the lease. Congress has only allowed two leases to be sold to the industry and so far, there haven’t been too many bids. The New York Times stated that new legislation requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to conduct one lease in four years and a second lease in the next seven years. Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, stated in the New York TImes that there is an interest in drilling the refuge but the threat of lawsuits by environmental groups is creating a little bit of a delay. Spokesman for the Industry stated that this isn’t something that is happening overnight but they are planning to happen in the next 10 or 20 years from now.
But, what does that mean for other preserves if the oil from the ANWR is a new-found profithouse? Should we expect other refuges to close down or be destroyed by industries and exploitation like oil and gas? President Theodore Roosevelt selected Florida’s Pelican Island to be the first wildlife refuge in 1903 and now there is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state and territory. These refuges are under a serious threat and it would be an incredible disappointment if we threw away 115 years of environmental protection down the drain just to support the oil and gas industry. If you want to drill that’s fine, but leave the National Wildlife Refuge’s goal to protect biological diversity and ecosystems alone.