The tasks of serving as good stewards of the Earth and caring for one another are under threat in many places, but none more notable than Alaska. For the first time, oil drilling will be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the northern part of Alaska. This breathtaking parcel of creation, home to the Gwich’in people, is unique because its natural processes remain mostly uninfluenced by people.

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Porcupine caribou migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. Holding a second oil-lease sale for tracts there would be pointless, considering that the first sale yielded only 1 percent of projected revenue, as well as the growing consensus on the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File

But for all its singular beauty and its importance for wildlife, some policymakers and oil companies have continued to urge Congress to open this national treasure to oil exploration and drilling. Oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Refuge will not only violate the human rights of the Gwich’in people, but also will continue to contribute to the climate crisis, which threatens all of us.

In a study, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that oil development would harm wildlife and their habitats,especially the Porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic Refuge. With the threats of oil development in their calving grounds, it is virtually certain that the size of the herd would be diminished, effectively ending the Gwich’in way of life, which for 30,000 years has relied on the Porcupine caribou for much of their food.

Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican from Maine, has told me in a letter, “I believe we can create an energy policy that will provide sufficient energy to meet the needs of today and of future generations without compromising America’s environmentally sensitive areas. I have therefore opposed efforts to open areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Georges Bank off the coast of Maine to drilling.”

Repealing the mandate to lease in the Arctic Refuge through the current budget reconciliation process is the most important action Congress can take right now to ensure that the rights, culture and sacred lands of the Gwich’in remain intact.

Republicans tried to use the budget reconciliation a total of five times to open the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas exploration. After then-President Donald Trump proposed opening up the Arctic Refuge to drilling in 2017, they successfully did so through the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act, which resulted in the creation of a drilling program and two mandated lease sales – the first in 2020 and the second in 2024.

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On Jan. 6, the Trump administration held the first lease sale for tracts on the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, and the results were surprising. No major oil companies showed up to bid and only nine tracts were sold out of 22 offered. The sale generated only 1 percent of projected revenue, according to the government watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Several realities probably influenced the poor showing of fossil fuel companies at the lease sale. First, the future economic viability of fossil fuels is in question. Many automobile companies like General Motors have stated that they will make mostly or only electric vehicles after 2035, and most nations are committed to achieving net zero greenhouse-gas emissions at least by 2050. Second, financing oil exploration and drilling has become harder, with most of the large banks declaring that they will not lend money for drilling in the Arctic.

Although the first Arctic lease sale was an absolute failure, a second lease sale, however, is still mandated by law in 2024.

Congress is poised to pass a budget reconciliation package, which will likely include a robust climate response. It will be important that language included in the budget reconciliation bill rescinds the required 2024 lease sale.

Reversing the drilling program that Trump began is key to preserving the sacred place that is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Budget reconciliation is the ideal legislative vehicle – and our best chance – to restore protections for the Arctic Refuge. The stakes are high.


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