Developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The Re-Emergence of and Perspectives on the Decades-Old Debate

Developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The Re-Emergence of and Perspectives on the Decades-Old Debate

By Leigh Barton, Staff Contributor

For decades, a debate has raged over whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (“ANWR”) for oil and gas exploration.[1] In the past, various environmental groups and the Gwich’in native people have opposed the exploration and potential development of ANWR, while the Alaskan government, the oil and gas industry, and the Inupiat native people have supported it. Environmental groups have focused their anti-exploration arguments on the scenic beauty of ANWR and the fact that development on ANWR’s coastal plain would violate the original purposes for designating ANWR as a wilderness refuge, which included, “to preserve unrivaled scenic and geological values associated with natural landscapes [and] to provide for the maintenance of sound populations of, and habitat for, wildlife species of inestimable value to the citizens of Alaska and the Nation, including those species dependent on vast relatively undeveloped areas.”[2] The Gwich’in people have also staunchly opposed the proposed exploration due to the potential impacts it would have on the Porcupine caribou herd. Not only is “Gwich’in” directly translated to “The Caribou People,”[3] but the people have relied on this herd for around 20,000 years for survival and for spirituality.[4]

On the other side of the debate, the Alaskan government and, perhaps surprisingly, the Inupiat native people, have supported the exploration proposal due to its potential economic benefits to both the State and to the US. A report by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that ANWR’s coastal plain contains around 10.4 million barrels of recoverable oil.[5] Additionally, these developments are estimated to create up to 736,000 new jobs.[6] Currently, approximately one-third of Alaska’s jobs are connected to the oil and gas industry[7] and monies paid by oil and gas companies comprise twenty-one percent of Alaska’s total revenue.[8] Most importantly, this money funds ninety percent of the state’s discretionary budget, which supports programs helping Alaska’s indigenous peoples and its citizens in need.[9] Thus, the economic benefits could potentially be huge, not only for Alaskans , but for the whole of the United States. The oil and gas industry has also, unsurprisingly, been a strong supporter of this proposal, often citing a desire to end foreign dependence on fossil fuels as a major reason to explore and hopefully develop ANWR.[10]

For decades, the two sides of this debate have remained unchanged, but recently, this line appears to have shifted. In early November 2017, the proposal to explore and potentially develop ANWR was once again brought before Congress. This time, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considered the proposal in an effort to identify $1 billion in budget cuts over a ten-year period.[11] Once again, the Alaskan government supported the developments, highlighting the potential for new job creation, the billions of dollars in revenues, and the energy independence such developments could bring.[12] Once again, conservationists opposed the developments, arguing that the potential revenues from such developments are extremely exaggerated.[13] This time however, the oil and gas industry seems to have changed sides, arguing that development of ANWR’s coastal plain is not of great interest.[14] Analysts estimate that “[o]il prices would have to be about $70 per barrel to justify production there… .”[15] According to Christopher Lewis, a retired petroleum geologist who worked for BP on the Prudhoe Bay developments and who was a member of the American Petroleum Institute’s exploration committee, “The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge does not have promising oil-bearing rock formations. There is not great interest in developing [ANWR]. There are safer bets.”[16] Instead, oil companies looking “to fill the Trans Alaska Pipeline System are more likely to turn to the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23.5-million area in northwest Alaska explicitly set aside for energy development.”[17] This area would be less expensive to explore and potentially develop because it is both closer to existing infrastructure and less controversial.[18]

As the oil and gas industry does not currently support the proposal as it once has, it seems unclear how this debate will continue to develop in the Trump Administration. Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has prioritized drilling in ANWR,[19] but without the backing of the industry, the pro-development side has lost a heavy-hitter. Given the increased importance of oil and gas in the new Administration, it seems unlikely that development debates will disappear completely, but ANWR may be left undisturbed–at least for now.

[1] See, e.g., Jennifer A. Dlouhy & Alex Nussbaum, Low Oil Prices Dim GOP Bid for Budget Bonanza in Arctic, Bloomberg (Oct. 31, 2017, 5:48 PM),

[2] See 16 U.S.C. § 3101(b).

[3] Rachael Blum, How Drilling in ANWR Would Threaten the Gwich’in People’s Way of Life, EcoWatch
(Feb. 9, 2015, 9:18 AM),

[4] Emily Gertz, Gwich’in Gear Up to Fight for Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Arctic Deeply (June 14, 2017), In fact, the Gwich’in still rely on these caribou as the majority of their subsistence diet due to the extremely high grocery-store food prices in this part of the Arctic. Id.; see also Julia O’Malley, Listen to the Gwich’in, Aljazeera Am. (Mar. 14, 2015), (noting that groceries at a local Arctic Village grocery store cost three times as much as they do a few hundred miles away in Fairbanks, Alaska).

[5] Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 1002 Area, Petroleum Assessment, 1998, Including Economic Analysis, U.S. Geological Survey (1998),

[6] ANWR Information Brief: Employment,, (last visited Oct. 10, 2017).

[7] Facts and Figures, Alaska Oil and Gas Ass’n (2017), (last visited Oct. 10, 2017).

[8] Olivia Gonzalez, What’s going on with Alaska’s budget?, Neighborhood Effects (April 7, 2017),

[9] Id.

[10] See Matthew J. Kotchen & Nicholas E. Burger, Should we drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? An Economic Perspective, 35 Energy Policy 4720, 4723 (2007).

[11] See Aaron Martin, Senate panel probes potential oil, gas development in non-wilderness acres of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Daily Energy Insider (Nov. 6, 2017),

[12] Id.

[13] See Dlouhy & Nussbaum, supra note 1. An analysis released earlier in October 2017 by the Center for American Progress estimated that drilling in ANWR’s coastal plain would bring in only around $37.5 million over the next ten years. Brittany Patterson, The Fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is Back, Scientific Am. (Oct. 16, 2017),

[14] See Dlouhy & Nussbaum, supra note 1.

[15] Id. Currently, oil prices hover around $40 a barrel. Patterson, supra note 13.

[16] Dlouhy & Nussbaum, supra note 1.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Patterson, supra note 13.

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