When Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski re-ignited a decades-old push to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, she tried to make the case that science was on her side. Thanks to technological improvements, the Republican senator argued, drilling on ANWR’s oil-rich coastal plain will have a much smaller footprint in 2017 than it would’ve 30 years ago.
This week, dozens of Alaskan scientists called bullshit on this.
In a letter addressed to Murkowski and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, thirty seven top Alaskan wildlife biologists explained why drilling on ANWR’s coastal plain could spell disaster for Arctic wildlife.
The signatories, including retired former officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game, and the U.S. Geological Survey, explain that while the coastal plain is small—encompassing just 1.5 million acres of the 19 million acre refuge— it’s vital to the biodiversity of the region.
“Within the narrow coastal plain, there is a unique compression of habitats which concentrates a wide array of wildlife native to the Arctic,” including polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, and more, the letter reads.
Drilling proponents say the industry’s footprint would be limited to just 2,000 acres. But these scientists argue that framing is misleading. In reality, those 2,000 acres could be spread across most of the coastal plain, causing it to become criss-crossed with roads and well pads.
In effect, the result could be that even a small amount of industrial activity impacts virtually the entire region.
“Since the effects of industrial activities, starting with seismic surveys, are not limited to the footprint of a structure or to its immediate vicinity, it is highly likely that such activities would result in significant impacts on a variety of wildlife in the refuge’s narrow coastal plain,” the letter reads.
The scientists specifically call out polar bears, which are “highly vulnerable to disturbance due to oil and gas activities” and which have already been affected by drilling elsewhere on the North Slope. Three quarters of the coastal plain is designated critical habitat for these iconic Arctic predators.
On Wednesday, Murkowski unveiled the first draft of a bill that would open ANWR’s coastal plain to drilling, which Republicans are hoping to attach to a larger 2018 tax reform package. The bill would require the Department of the Interior to conduct two lease sales for at least 400,000 acres of land apiece over a ten year budget window.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that the plan would bring about 1.1 billion into federal coffers. But drilling opponents have argued that the math is fuzzier. When the left-leaning Center for American Progress crunched the numbers, it found that the federal government is more likely to see a return of just 37.5 million.
Contrasting this potential revenue is the intrinsic value of the refuge itself. At least according to these scientists—and many Alaskan Natives, and even some nuns—that’s something you can’t put a price tag on.