Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Danielle Brigida/Flickr)

Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), one of the largest conservation areas in the country, includes a 1.5 million–acre coastal plain that is home to polar bears, migrating caribou, and hundreds of other animal species. It sits atop what some estimate to be billions of barrels of oil. So it came as no surprise when, despite the objections of the indigenous Gwich’in, environmental advocacy groups, and 72 percent of Americans, the Trump administration rushed forward with a January 6 auction of twenty-two tracts of land on the coastal plain. What is surprising is that the auction fell well short of the government’s $900 million goal, raising instead a paltry $14.4 million.

The auction was the first of two required by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which projected the leases could offset up to $1.8 billion of Trump’s massive giveaway to corporations and the wealthy. Its inclusion in the law was the culmination of a forty-year battle to gain access to drilling on the coastal plain, the only part of the ANWR open to potential development, pending congressional approval. But the plan fell flat: half the tracts received no bids at all, and almost all of those that did were leased at rock-bottom prices to a state-owned development group that hopes to sublease them in the future. Not a single major oil company bid. America’s six largest banks have refused to finance any energy exploration on the coastal plain. Lawsuits contesting the auction have been filed by national and local environmental groups; by Trustees for Alaska, who represent the Gwich’in; and by attorneys general from fifteen states. Plaintiffs argue that the environmental-impact survey conducted to sanction the leasing program “drastically underestimated” the effect of its emissions, and that development on the coastal plain threatens land central to the subsistence and culture of the Gwich’in.

The fossil-fuel industry isn’t motivated by a newly developed conscience, but by economics and optics.

Republicans have long justified their relentless determination to undermine environmental protections by claiming that deregulation and investment in fossil fuels will create economic opportunities, but the result of this auction proves the diminishing force of that argument. There is no appetite, even within the energy industry, for expensive, relatively inaccessible Alaskan oil, especially when a global pandemic has caused an enormous drop in demand, and when public pressure to shift away from fossil fuels and protect the planet has been mounting for years.

The fossil-fuel industry isn’t motivated by a newly developed conscience, of course, but by economics and optics. Nevertheless, this is part of an encouraging shift, one precipitated by people all over the world showing their support for stronger climate protection through their protests, their consumer choices, and their decisions at the ballot box. On Joe Biden’s first day in office, he issued a temporary moratorium on all oil- and gas-leasing activities in the ANWR, directing the Interior Department to review the environmental impacts and “alleged legal deficiencies” of the leases the Trump administration finalized on its last day. With a Democratic majority, Congress can also pass legislation to overturn the mandate requiring a second auction. To combat the real concerns of people whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels as the world moves toward a greener future, the government will need to further invest in new technologies and provide training for alternative-energy jobs. Momentum for action continues to build: in a recent survey of registered voters by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 66 percent said that developing sources of clean energy should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress. Challenges remain, but the undeniable failure of the ANWR auction should give hope to anyone who cares about the planet. 

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the February 2021 issue: View Contents
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