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Trump’s Four-Year Drilling Binge Has Done Irreparable Damage

Although the recent auction of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling rights flopped, Biden’s team will have a tough time rolling back a strategy designed to survive a Democratic White House.

The Alaskan pipeline appears beneath the Aurora Borealis near Milne Point, Alaska.
Greg A. Syverson/Getty Images
The Alaskan pipeline near Milne Point, Alaska

Last week, amid the chaos of the Capitol riot, the Trump administration proceeded with plans to sell off chunks of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the gas and oil industry’s highest bidders. The plan had been in the works for years, and while Congress was still under siege by fervent Trump supporters, the Bureau of Land Management opened the auction—with embarrassing results.

Only two private bidders took the plunge. Mark Graber, the head of an Alaska-based company that successfully bid on a 50,000-acre tract, told the Anchorage Daily News that he wasn’t surprised at dearth of investors. “It’s absolutely the poorest time to do this sale,” he said, referring to 2020’s dismal returns for extractive industries. However, Graber noted, with a Biden administration coming in, the chance to secure a lease might not come around for another four years. The state-owned development corporation Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority brought the total number of bidders up to three.

The lack of initial interest, with only 11 of the 22 offerings sold, was immediately hailed as a victory for ANWR conservationists and the affected Alaska Native populations, as well as a political victory for President-elect Joe Biden—one less Day One headache to worry about. But the question, with less than two weeks left in Trump’s tenure, is not so much why Trump decided to open the refuge, or why nobody bid last week—though those do demand answers. The more important issue is how the incoming Biden administration will proceed—how it will go about unwinding and redirecting the BLM and Interior Department after the agencies spent four years selling off lands to any and all corporate allies listed in Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Rolodex.

The ANWR, a 19.6-million-acre area located in northeastern Alaska, has long been eyed by conservatives for drilling. In particular, Alaska’s sitting congressional members have championed the opening of a 1.5-million-acre plot within the ANWR known as Area 1002 for what Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski termed, last September, “responsible development.” House Representative Don Young, who’s going on his twenty-fifth term in Congress, has been fighting for drilling in ANWR for almost the entire time he’s been in office, with hard pushes in the 1990s and the past decade. The Alaska delegation finally realized its dreams in 2017, when Trump and Republican leaders passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, with a measure baked in that instructed the secretary of the interior to produce a plan to lease, develop, produce, and transport gas and oil from Area 1002.

This is where it becomes important to understand how the Interior Department works. The secretary (Bernhardt, in this case) is not the sole person responsible for overseeing drilling on federal lands—that honor goes to the head of the Bureau of Land Management, who serves under the interior secretary. The heads of both BLM and the Interior are appointed by the president, so for the past four years, that’s meant that men with strong ties to extractive industries have determined the immediate future of America’s natural resources.

President-elect Joe Biden’s selection for secretary of the interior is Deb Haaland, a congresswoman from New Mexico, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, and, if appointed, the first Native member of the Cabinet in modern times. (If one’s splitting hairs, Charles Curtis, of the Kaw Nation, served as vice president for Herbert Hoover, and the Vice President does count as a member of the Cabinet.) In the run-up to her first term in the House, Haaland was steadfast on her position regarding drilling in the ANWR. As Alaska Public Media noted last month, Haaland spoke out against the proposed drilling plan on her campaign trail in 2018, saying, “Not everything should be based on how much money we can make.”

In 2019, following her election, Haaland was one of the congressional leaders behind the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, legislation that would have returned protections to Area 1002 by blocking the BLM from administering any leases in the ANWR’s Coastal Plain. “This administration really thinks that it owns everything and that it can just sell off our public lands or our tribal lands to the highest bidder,” said Haaland at a press conference for the bill, “and we are trying to stop that.” On the House floor, Haaland also pointed out that drilling would endanger the Porcupine caribou herd and other native species, all of which have been stewarded by the Alaska Native populations from time immemorial. The ANWR protection act passed the House easily and was introduced in the Senate, where it failed to progress due to the Republican majority, effectively killing the opposition attempt.

The Biden administration’s approach, going forward, will be complicated by the differing views on extraction of the Alaska Native populations with claims to the area. Groups like the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a collection of Gwich’in citizens who oppose drilling on the grounds that it threatens the caribou and related sacred sites, have stood on the front line fighting the bill and have received Haaland’s support. But there is also a strong contingent of Alaska Native communities, such as the Inupiat, who have argued in favor of drilling operations as a mode of economic self-determination. As reported in 2019, as the ANWR protection bill was being crafted, through the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (you can read more on the Alaska Native Corporation model here), the Inupiat, who live on the ANWR, own the surface and subsurface rights to roughly 92,000 acres of Area 1002. If nothing else, the issue will be an initial stress test of the Biden administration’s promise to consult and listen to Indigenous nations and communities.

Looking beyond the ANWR, there is a larger question at play: How, if at all, will the Biden administration logistically go about undoing the work of the Trump administration when it comes to gas and oil drilling leases? The Associated Press reported on Sunday that, beginning in late 2020, as Biden’s victory became more imminent, companies submitted over 3,000 drilling permits to the BLM, with close to 1,400 gaining approval—the highest rate of any period during the Trump administration, per the AP. With these permits in place, both Haaland and Biden will be limited in terms of what they can do to prevent companies from drilling on these lands, even with the Senate, House, and White House under Democratic control. Similarly, unless Congress passes a bill overturning the ANWR provision in the 2017 tax bill, the BLM will still be obligated to keep Area 1002 ostensibly open for drilling, though it will almost certainly not auction off any new leases.

The ANWR ultimately presents the same challenge that the Biden administration will have to contend with for the duration of its term: The Trump administration and the Republican Senate have been infuriatingly efficient at pushing through long-held items on the conservative agenda, be it federal judges, the tax bill, or the leasing of land to extractive corporations. And as nice as it would be to believe otherwise, fixing the damage from that won’t be as simple as waking up on January 21.