Arctic-Drilling Plan Draws Fire From 16 Attorneys General

Rough sea ice at sunset off the coast of Alaska

(CN) – Warning of far-reaching environmental impacts, 16 attorneys general accused the Trump administration on Wednesday of relying on a flawed study to justify the start of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Often referred to as “America’s Serengeti,” the 19.64-million-acre refuge in Alaska is home to some of the most diverse wildlife in Arctic, including caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves and migratory birds.

Plans to allow resource mining on the state’s northern coast started last year after Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, sneaked a rider into the GOP tax bill that would alter the purpose of the refuge to also “provide an oil and gas program on the coastal plain,” thus opening the area to oil and gas leasing.

Before the rule change becomes finalized in the Federal Register, 16 attorneys general led by top prosecutors in Massachusetts and Washington state fired off their objections Wednesday in a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

“Such development will forever change the fragile ecosystem of the Coastal Plain and the vast Arctic Refuge wilderness of which it is a part,” says the letter, which is joined by the the attorneys general of 14 other states, plus the District of Columbia.

They say the drilling plan not only threatens the environment but also fails to achieve its goal of making up for the loss of government revenue from GOP-backed tax cuts.

While the Congressional Budget Office has predicted that the program will generate $2.2 billion, the coalition of AGs claim that such projections fail to account for “uncertainties.”

Indeed the volume of recoverable oil in the Arctic is “far from certain,” according to the letter, and the price per barrel would have to be substantially greater to justify the high cost of extracting oil in an area that lacks existing infrastructure. 

“Offering the Coastal Plain for lease would generate far less revenue than its intended purpose and the program’s environmental harm would greatly outweigh any limited economic benefit,” the 46-page letter states.

By their own analysis, the AGs say drilling on the coastal plain would likely result in decreased demand for oil and lower prices, making it even less likely the plan will generate the projected $2.2 billion in royalties to be split between the U.S. government and state of Alaska.

“The president claims oil and gas development at the refuge would offset a billion of dollars in revenue lost from the federal corporate tax cut, but we submitted an independent economic study that shows this simply isn’t true,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said Thursday in a Facebook post.

The AGs further contend that the Trump administration misinterpreted the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 by finding it allows for 2,000 surface acres of drilling at any given time, as opposed to 2,000 acres over the cumulative life of the leasing program. The Bureau of Land Management also plans to exclude from those limits any roads, gravel mines and surface disturbances “indirectly relating to or resulting from” drilling facilities.

Accusing the bureau of omitting unfavorable information from its impact study, Thursday’s letter goes on to cite a report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental advocacy group, that says a final environmental impact report for the arctic drilling plan excluded concerns about major research gaps. 

“These data gaps appear to include important baseline information for water resources, migratory bird populations, polar bears, and caribou,” the AGs say. 

The attorneys general are urging the Bureau of Land Management to develop an alternate plan that would limit oil and gas leases to 800,000 acres and cap cumulative surface area development at 2,000 acres to “minimize the environmental harm.” The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act directs the bureau to offer a minimum of 800,000 acres in two separate lease sales of 400,000 acres each. 

“Drilling in the Refuge would never be worth the havoc wreaked on vulnerable wildlife, critical arctic ecosystems, and our climate,” Healey’s Facebook post states.

The deadline to comment on the impact study for the arctic drilling proposal ended Wednesday.

In addition to Healey and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, AGs from Delaware, Oregon, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C., joined the coalition opposing the arctic drilling plan. 

The Bureau of Land Management and Washington state Attorney General’s Office did not immediately return emails seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

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