Republicans in Congress committed what one environmental expert calls an “epic crime” with the recently passed tax bill — a hidden and little-known provision that opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.
Senators passed the sweeping tax reform in the very early morning hours on Saturday, the largest overhaul to the tax code since the 1980s. Critics have attacked the plan for raising taxes on the middle class while offering huge cuts to the wealthiest Americans and on corporations, but environmentalists are taking on a different provision of the bill. In order to secure the vote of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republicans inserted a provision that opens up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling.
“This small package offers a tremendous opportunity for Alaska, for the Gulf Coast, and for all of our nation,” Murkowski said (via the Washington Examiner). “We have authorized responsible energy development in the 1002 area.”
Democrats and environmental groups had fought for close to four decades to keep that area of land free from oil drilling. Subhankar Banerjee, an environmentalists and professor of ecology at the University of New Mexico, told Democracy Now that the drilling now opens up a host of troubling issues, including the possibility of mass extinction in the area.
“When it comes to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where drilling is proposed, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is the biologically most diverse protected nursery in the entire Circumpolar North,” he said. “It is a nursery of global significance. I am not saying this sitting at a high tower of academia. I have spent an enormous amount of time in all seasons in that coastal plain, and have seen life being born, being nursed, in all seasons including winter.”
“That is the coastal plain where the polar bear gives birth. That is the coastal plain where muskox gives birth. That is the coastal plain where 200,000-strong Porcupine River caribou herd, that earlier Sam Alexandra was talking about, give birth and nurse their young. That is the coastal plain where millions of birds from six continents and all 50 United States go there to nest and rear their young. And I have experienced all of this personally out there.”
The scientific diversity of the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve is enormous, Bernadette Demientieff told The Atlantic. Demientieff is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a group representing the indigenous Gwich’in people and fighting against drilling in the pristine Alaskan wilderness. She noted that the lands have been a migratory land for caribou dating back 2 million years, and home to a range of other animals including Arctic fox, walrus, Lynx, and a number of migratory birds including sandpipers and peregrine falcons.
The environmental risks of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are enormous, but so too are the possible consequences for indigenous people living there, The Atlantic noted.
“No one will be more affected by the opening of ANWR than Alaska’s indigenous people, who will live among—and work on—the rigs, drills, and pipelines that would follow the discovery of any oil or gas reserve,” the report noted. “The discovery of oil or gas in the region could bring an economic windfall to the subsistence tribes that live on Alaska’s North Slope, the coastal plain that faces the Arctic Ocean. But if a major disaster—like an oil spill or gas leak—were to occur in the area, it would devastate their only homeland.”
Critics have noted that the tax bill has other provisions that put the environment at risk, including eliminating investments to invest in alternative energies like wind and solar. In the hours before the bill passed, a number of Democratic Senators spoke up about these provisions, calling on voters to contact their representatives and demand that they be taken out of the bill. But those measures were not successful, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling provision remained part of the final bill passed at just after 1 a.m. on Saturday.
It is not clear when drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could begin now that the Republican tax bill has opened it up, but environmental groups have vowed to continue fighting it.