Oil Drilling: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Mason Cummings, TWS

America’s wildest place on the edge of destruction

It's no wonder that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is called the crown jewel of our refuge system. The Arctic Refuge is the only refuge where you’ll find the spectacle of polar bears denning and thunderous annual migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which sustains the communities and way of life for the Indigenous Gwich’in and Iñupiat people who have deep and ancient connections to this land.  

This vast refuge of coastal lands, boreal forests and alpine tundra supports an exceptional array of wildlife from musk oxen and Arctic fox to all three types of North American bear species and hundreds of bird species. It is one of the finest large, intact landscapes left on Earth.

Such an exceptional place cannot sustain human activity on an industrial scale, and yet the refuge is threatened by oil and gas development after being opened to oil and gas leasing by a provision in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. If oil companies are allowed to drill on the refuge’s sensitive coastal plain, this essential landscape will be lost forever.

Why this place matters

The refuge is one of the world’s last places free from development. The health of Arctic species like polar bears and caribou depends on us standing with Indigenous communities to protect it.

The Gwich’in and Iñupiat people
Changes to the refuge’s Porcupine Caribou Herd could stress Indigenous communities that rely on caribou as a primary food source.
America's Serengeti
More than 270 species thrive here, including polar bears, caribou and musk oxen.
More than 200,000 caribou
The Porcupine caribou herd uses the refuge’s coastal plain for its annual calving grounds.
Key polar bear habitat
Some of the most important denning habitat for polar bears in the Alaskan Arctic exists here.

The threat

For decades, oil and gas interests and their friends in Congress fought to open the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas development. In 2017, they gained significant ground. That year, Congress passed a backdoor provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that allowed the Trump administration to begin the process for leasing vulnerable refuge lands to oil companies.

The Arctic Refuge is now facing a pivotal moment. Even as the climate crisis is causing the Arctic to warm at rates higher than any other place on Earth, there is still counting pressure to drill here.

Oil development would bring roads, airstrips, heavy machinery, noise and pollution. This would damage the refuge’s fragile tundra ecosystem and disrupt age-old migration and denning patterns for caribou, polar bears and other animals. It would also contribute to the climate crisis with more oil production in a time when it is not needed and we should be thinking of alternative approaches to fuel our lives and our economy.

While the threat to the refuge is higher than ever, the fight is not over. Working alongside Indigenous partners, we are making great strides by advocating for permanent protection of this special place, going to court against the administration, successfully applying pressure on major banks to reject financing for drilling, and building a huge base of public support.  

Through vivid storytelling and sharing of experiences, we are making the Arctic Refuge “real” to people who have never visited it, and helping them understand that it is not some mythical, faraway place, but a real landscape that belongs to everyone and that must be protected in the interest of Indigenous rights and climate protection. We all have a moral obligation to stand up and keep it from being destroyed.

What we're doing

  1. Opposing the Arctic drilling program

    We’re working to repeal the drilling program put in place by Congress in 2017 and ensure leases in the Arctic are cancelled. 

  2. Applying corporate pressure

    Should the government get away with fast-tracking the steps for drilling, an important arm of our defense is to pressure oil and gas companies not to develop in the Arctic Refuge. Already, pressure from Indigenous activists, the public, and organizations including The Wilderness Society have led five of the United States’ six largest banks to announce they will no longer finance oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

  3. Advocating for permanent protections

    We’re advancing national legislation permanently protect the refuge for generations to come while recognizing its importance to nearby Indigenous communities. In so doing, we will end the threat of drilling once and for all.