By: Jessica Miles
I want the Arctic and the polar bears to survive.
As part of their America First energy policy, the Trump administration pushed hard to open up America’s last wild spaces to oil and gas development. In December 2017, by attaching a rider to the 2017 Tax Bill, the Trump administration and leading Senate Republicans successfully opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. The administration tasked the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee in particular with finding an additional one billion dollars in revenue to offset the tax cuts.
In total, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge covers 19.6 million acres. The coastal plain is only 1.5 million acres, but the potential for oil discovery has made it a contested battle ground since its inception.
Rep. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told a House-Senate conference committee that drilling in the ANWR could raise a billion dollars for the federal treasury over the next decade. However, that highly unlikely number is based on wildly optimistic leased drilling sales and projections that the price of oil will increase. The Center for American Progress did its own analysis, and it is likelier that any drilling in the refuge will only bring in $37.5 million over the next ten years, less than half of what was promised.
The lack of an income or sales tax on Alaska’s residents hamstrings the state government. Ninety percent of the state’s budget comes from the oil and gas industry, but the amount of oil passing through the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System has fallen steadily since 1988. As a result, Alaska is suffering from ballooning budget deficits. More than one-third of the state’s private sector jobs come from the oil and gas industry. Human-caused climate change has put an undue strain on the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population. The continuous melt of sea ice forces the bears inland, which is why the 1002 area has become such a critical denning habitat for females.
Over the years, advocates for opening up the ANWR have expressed hope that there is as much oil in the coastal plain as there is in nearby places like Point Thompson field or Prudhoe Bay: at least 7 billion barrels, perhaps as much as 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The U.S. Geological Survey has said there is a five percent chance of finding 11.8 billion barrels of oil.
During the 1980’s oil companies capped and abandoned KIC-1, the only drill site to have operated in ANWR’s coastal plain. While the drill site no longer resembles the start of greyscale from GOT, the trauma lingers, preventing a full recovery. At the time, the site operators tried to be environmentally conscious, using timber rather than a gravel base. However, the timber killed all the vegetation underneath it. The KIC-1 project cost BP, Chevron and other oil companies $40 million dollars. The amount of recovered oil remains undisclosed. The Arctic is a delicate snowflake, and it takes a long time for injustices to heal, if they ever do.
The data on possible oil well deposits in the coastal plain hasn’t been updated since the KIC-1 project. To determine how much oil rests under the surface, and update the maps, requires the use of seismic testing. Seismic testing involves sending high-pressure vibrations into the ground at 135-foot intervals. Teams of 160 workers have to move heavy equipment, including 90,000-pound trucks, over every inch of the 1.5 million miles of the coastal plain.
The heavy seismic testing equipment could break through den roofs and crush the unsuspecting bears. Seismic testing disturbs denning females, causing mothers to abandon their cubs who cannot survive outside the den during the first three months of their life. Trump’s Department of Interior wanted to mitigate the impact by using forward looking infrared radar (FLIR) cameras to detect polar bear dens.
On the surface, the proposal seemed reasonable enough. The problem remains, the FLIR cameras responsible for detecting polar bear dens are inaccurate. Carried by airplanes or helicopters, FLIR cameras can detect heat under the snow. But the cameras are finicky. To get a good reading, the weather has to be nearly perfect, not too much wind and little moisture. Too much snowfall can also interfere with the readings. Over roughly a decade of surveys, FLIR technology could only locate forty-five percent of the thirty-three known polar bear dens. Climate change and the rapid Arctic melting will only make FLIR detection that much harder.
If a construction survey crew, unceremoniously and unannounced, wrecked a wall of private citizens’ homes while they were sleeping, the homeowners would be incensed. I believe that polar bears are sentient beings with souls similar to that of humans. I believe that female polar bears with cubs can provide love and care the same way a human mother would to her infant.
I want the Arctic and the polar bears to survive.
The good news is that oil companies have lost some of their financial backers, at least for risky projects like drilling in the Arctic. In February 2020, a group of House Democrats, spearheaded by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California), wrote a letter urging the heads of several major banks like JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley to stop funding drilling in the refuge.
Environmental advocates and the Gwich’in Nation won a small victory with J.P. Morgan Chase’s announcement that they will no longer fund drilling in the Arctic. The decision is a boon for the environment, considering J.P. Morgan Chase is the largest funder of fossil fuel projects. Getting the oil industry’s backers to pull their financial support from drilling in the refuge is a huge first step. But the Trump administration and Alaskan representatives have tried to open the coastal plain for drilling for decades. It’s unlikely that a small setback like this will ultimately curb Alaskan politicians or oil company CEO’s appetite for exploitation in the name of profit for long.
I support carbon-tech like direct air capture because the less CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the less quickly the Arctic melts. And if direct air capture succeeds, it can have a much greater impact on reducing CO2 than I could as an individual. But direct air capture doesn’t stop oil drilling.
I’ve tried to turn my passion for the environment into concrete actions. In the past, I canvassed around Northern Virginia, trying to drum up support for clean energy policy. I interned for the environmental nonprofit The Wilderness Society. I interned for Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA), who is part of the Safe Climate Caucus. Yet, I can’t help but feel like I am always playing catchup. When it comes to ANWR, I see a less clear path forward for individual action, but I know I can continue to write to my elected representatives urging them to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, attend protest marches when they pop up, and pray. I pray there are enough environmental lawyers and eyes on the continual threat to one of America’s last wild spaces. I pray that elected officials continue to do their job and listen to the public’s opposition.
But I intend to keep fighting. Will I fail? Probably. I’m not Superman.
I need the Arctic and the polar bears to survive. The Arctic is the one place where the world makes sense. I have pity for the people who continue to ride roughshod over the weak and exploit the land for their gain. I know they’ll have to look their god in the eye when asked if the destruction was worth it. I pity Republican politicians and oil company CEOs, because when they look inside themselves, they’ll find nothing but a black gaping hole where their souls should be. I pity them, because no matter what atrocities they are capable of inflicting today, the earth will survive. When the bodies of oil CEOs are turned to dust, when there is no one left to remember them, maybe then, they will understand what they did. Only then, the earth will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief. And life, in whatever non-human form it takes, will start anew.
 This paragraph is sourced from Matt Lee-Ashley and Jenny Rowland-Shea’s article on the Center for American Progress website. Lee-Ashely, Matt and Rowland-Shea, Jenny. “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 101.” Center American Progress, 10 Oct 2017, americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2017/10/10/440559/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge-101/. Accessed 5 Mar 2020.
 Bourne, Joel K., Jr. “Arctic Refuge Has Lots of Wildlife—Oil, Maybe Not So Much.” National Geographic, 19 Dec 2017, nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/12/arctic-wildlife-refuge-tax-bill-oil-drilling-environment/. Accessed 5 Mar 2020.
 See footnote 13
 The information in this paragraph is sourced from Joel K. Bourne Jr.’s June 2018 article for National Geographic. Bourne, Joel K., Jr. “This Refuge May Be the Most Contested Land in the U.S.” National Geographic, June 2018, nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge-america-oil-risk/. Accessed 5 Mar 2020.
 See footnote 14
 The information in this paragraph is sourced from Henry Foutain’s April 2019 article in The New York Times. Fountain, Henry. “Here’s What Oil Drilling Looks Like in the Arctic Refuge, 30 Years Later.” The New York Times, 3 Apr 2019. nytimes.com/2017/12/15/climate/arctic-drilling-anwr.html. Accessed 5 Mar 2020.
 The information in this paragraph is sourced from Wes Silar’s September 2019 Outside Magazine Online article. Siler, Wes. “With Drilling ANWR a Go, Polar Bears Will Suffer.” Outside Online, 13 Sep 2019, outsideonline.com/2402095/anwr-drilling-doi-polar-bears. Accessed 5 Mar 2020.
 See footnote 19
 This paragraph is sourced from Henry Fountain’s February 2020 article in The New York Times. Fountain, Henry. “Oil Industry Tool to Spare Polar Bears Is More Miss Than Hit.” The New York Times, 27 Feb 2020, nytimes.com/2020/02/27/climate/polar-bears-arctic-national-wildlife-reserve.html. Accessed 5 Mar 2020.
 The information in this paragraph is sourced from Rachel Frazin’s February 2020 article in The Hill. Frazin, Rachel. “House Democrats urge banks to not fund drilling in Arctic refuge.” The Hill, 20 Feb 2020, thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/483871-33-democratic-lawmakers-urge-banks-to-halt-funding-anwr-drilling. Accessed 5 Mar 2020.
 Funes, Yessenia. “Largest Bank in the US Will Not Fund Fossil Fuel Extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Gizmodo, 25 Feb 2020, earther.gizmodo.com/largest-bank-in-the-us-will-stop-funding-fossil-fuel-ex-1841907860. Accessed 9 Mar 2020.
Jessica Miles holds an MFA in creative nonfiction with a concentration in nature writing. She is passionate about the polar bears and the Arctic.