Scientific Suppression in the Arctic

Below is a blog post I wrote for the Alliance for Justice’s Action Campaign (our organization’s (c)4 arm)

Regardless of whether it is possible to drill responsibly in the Arctic, the U.S. government has an obligation to honestly evaluate the risks of doing so, and its willful abdication of that responsibility has been criminal. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been banned for most of its decades-long history, but a provision in the 2017 Republican tax bill made about 1.6 million acres of the refuge available for oil and gas leasing. It should be noted that this only constitutes about 9% of the protected area, but we must also consider the far-reaching effects that a seemingly small operation could have on the larger local ecosystem. Before any oil and gas operations can legally begin, the Department of the Interior is required to conduct a detailed assessment of potential environmental impacts, such as disturbances to the local caribou, polar bears, and native peoples. The industry’s eagerness to exploit the land and its resources has put pressure on the relevant government agencies to expedite a process that is designed to be meticulous, and the Department of Interior has embraced the rush. With the knowledge that a future Democratic president would almost certainly ban the sale of leases to oil companies, Interior Secretary and former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt has expressed his determination to complete the review by the end of 2019.

The ANWR, which has historically been managed by Interior’s subsidiary Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is no longer being treated with the same care it has been in in the past. The Department has refused to commission any new studies as a part of their review, despite concerns from agency scientists that older studies are no longer up to date. Still more alarmingly, some of the research that has already been done has allegedly been edited by officials who had nothing to do with the studies and did not consult their original authors. Leaked documents obtained by Politico Magazine even showed that in one instance, “a biologist’s conclusion was reversed from saying the impacts of seismic surveys on polar bears were uncertain or potentially harmful to a finding that the impact would be ‘less than significant’—an important distinction in environmental law” (Federman). This was just one complaint, but there were many others like it, and the consensus among the scientific community has been that their research is being disregarded and repurposed to justify a project whose potential environmental impact is enormous. This isn’t the first time that the Department of Interior has been charged with altering scientific findings, and it isn’t the first time that David Bernhardt has been involved in the practice.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration seized on a national desire to wean the country off of foreign oil by pursuing the ANWR’s natural bounty. When a senior biologist found that the local caribou herd, a group of 180,000 animals, calved in the area for 27 of the 30 years for which data was available, he raised concerns about the impact that drilling would have on the herd (which native peoples also relied on for food). By the time the findings had made it to the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee’s desk, they had been altered to say that most caribou calving took place beyond the protected area and that this space wasn’t crucial to the herd’s survival. David Bernhardt was the congressional affairs director for the Secretary of Interior at the time, and he was allegedly involved in rewriting these findings. This is the man now serving as the steward of our public lands, and his track record has made clear that their protection is not his top priority.

The silver lining in 2019 is that hastily conducted reviews are typically more susceptible to future litigation, because they are more likely to break or skirt existing statutes. This could provide an opening for groups like Earthjustice and the Natural Resource Defense Council to take the Department of the Interior to court and, at minimum, delay the lease process until the end of President Trump’s term. Furthermore, even if leases are granted before litigation takes place, it will likely be years before any drilling begins. In order for that to happen land will have to be surveyed and infrastructure will have to be built to access potential sites, so there is still time to prevent this project from coming to fruition, but there are other factors to consider as well.

There are local people living adjacent to the protected wildlife area whose communities are struggling and who have welcomed the advent of oil and gas mining in the refuge, and this should be accounted for. The issue is a complicated one, and the environmental and social dynamics at play are myriad, but this further illustrates the importance of a thorough review. If it is conducted in good faith and without external business influence, only to find that natural resources can be safely extracted from the region without decimating its ecosystem, then we will have a resolution with which we can all be confident. What does not instill confidence, however, is the brazenly crooked way in which the review has been conducted thus far. Political affiliations aside, this saga presents its viewers with cartoonishly clear examples of due diligence vs. corruption. With oil-hungry energy barons lobbying their former colleagues in government for drilling rights in protected wildlife areas, it becomes hard to imagine a scenario in which the DOI’s present behavior can be justified as fully legal, much less remotely ethical.