Trump Administration Is Suppressing Science and Public Opinion to Drill the Arctic Refuge

Caribou migrate through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

In December 2018, the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The review was criticized for being insufficient and downplaying the impacts of drilling in one of the few untouched wilderness areas left in the country. Furthermore, leaked memos from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and other Department of the Interior agencies suggested that the BLM’s data are lacking and outdated, identifying at least 20 major studies that should be conducted before giving oil and gas the green light.

Now, a new Center for American Progress analysis finds that public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to drilling the refuge. Of the 1 million comments submitted in response to the draft EIS, 99 percent opposed the proposed oil and gas activity.* Many of the public comments raised concerns about the BLM’s lack of vigorous analysis regarding environmental impacts to the “biological heart” of the refuge.

If the Trump administration fails to address the serious deficiencies that have surfaced before and during the public comment period, it could put the planned oil and gas lease sale in legal jeopardy of violating the National Environmental Policy Act.

Ignoring public opinion

The BLM, with the help of an outside contractor, slapped together the draft EIS on oil and gas leasing in just five months and offered the public a mere 30 days to comment on the analysis—30 days fewer than average. The comment period was later extended after constituents and advocacy groups objected to the fact that most of it took place during the partial government shutdown, when BLM resources and personnel were largely unavailable. Despite these obstacles, more than 1 million people still engaged in the comment process.

As mentioned above, CAP found that 99 percent of public comments submitted were against drilling in the refuge, and many also objected to the conclusions of the BLM’s environmental review. Commenters raised concerns about oil and gas development’s impacts to wildlife, including the destruction of polar bear dens and the nesting grounds of more than 200 migratory birds. Comments also took issue with the analysis of drilling’s impacts to the Porcupine caribou, which some Alaska Native people—such as the Gwich’in and Iñupiat—depend on as a critical food and cultural resource. In addition, various comments expressed concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions that would come from the project.

Notably, the Inuvialuit Game Council—a Canadian council representing the Inuvialuit peoples’ wildlife and habitat interests—and several Canadian advisory councils and committees commented that the draft EIS “fails to fulfill the United States’ EIS obligations under both US domestic law and under international law and fails to recognize the transboundary nature of the Arctic Coastal Plain.” The group highlighted the potential impact that a lease sale would have on Canada and criticized the draft EIS for lacking the quantitative data and analyses necessary to consider drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

In addition, the Gwich’in Steering Committee—formed in 1988 to represent the interests of the Gwich’in, including the protection of the Porcupine caribou herd and its habitat—along with 152 advocacy organizations across 33 states, submitted comments in opposition to the BLM’s “deficient” draft EIS.

Both Canadian councils and advocacy organizations explicitly call on the BLM to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement—an interim step that is sometimes necessary to address deficiencies or major changes in an EIS—to adequately analyze the impact of oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge.

Failing to address gaping holes in the science

The public has reason to be concerned about shortcomings in the draft EIS. Not only is it clear that it downplays and underestimates the damage that would result from drilling the coastal plain, the government’s own scientists have confirmed the lack of recent—even modern—data and studies in the document.

In March 2019, transparency organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a series of leaked FWS memos that include expert assessments from government scientists about missing data critical to understanding the impacts of drilling on wildlife in the Arctic Refuge. According to the documents, prior to the release of the draft EIS, the FWS consulted government actors and scientists from a number of agencies—including the BLM, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, and various Alaska state and Canadian federal and territorial agencies—in order to identify and gather information critical to conducting a comprehensive EIS.

PEER released a total of 18 memos that identify “research gaps,” recommended studies, and data needed to conduct a thorough environmental review. In the memos, the agencies identify at least 20 different studies that should be done in order to meet “near-term regulatory requirements” and inform the BLM on the EIS. These include studies on ensuring compliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; researching water flow for transportation planning and water withdrawal permitting; and filling knowledge gaps on polar bear populations.

The memos make clear that much of the science surrounding the refuge is outdated and, in many cases, irrelevant to the current conditions of the coastal plain. For example, the memo on caribou indicates that the government data regarding the impact of oil field development on caribou populations came from studies that were conducted as far back as the 1980s. The memo on polar bears similarly notes that data on the species were last collected in 2010, when there was notable uncertainty regarding the bears’ population numbers. One memo also notes that surveys to gather in-depth subsistence data from Alaska Native populations have not been conducted since 1992, nearly 30 years ago.

The FWS was not the only science-based government agency to express concern over the draft EIS. In public comments, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 10 office voiced its doubts, noting that “the analysis does not adequately assess the potential cumulative impacts to air quality and air quality related values from implementing an oil and gas leasing program within the Coastal Plain.” The EPA also included detailed comments to the proposed alternatives listed in the draft EIS, including how the BLM could revisit and revise the original data to be more representative of the drilling’s potential impacts on the environment.

In its formal comments on the draft EIS, the FWS suggested that the BLM must improve its analysis so that it can “withstand the scrutiny of legal sufficiency” or else it will be at risk of losing later in court. Unfortunately, it does not appear that any of these vast data gaps were filled or addressed before the BLM released the draft EIS. The leaked memos add to the mounting questions of how the Trump administration can responsibly make consequential decisions about oil and gas leasing in the refuge without relevant and up-to-date information.

Conclusion

The hallmark of the Trump administration’s rush to drill in the Arctic Refuge is a shoddy draft EIS that fails to meaningfully assess the impacts of oil and gas activity. This environmental review is marked both by leaked memos that lay out missing scientific studies—a roadmap that was subsequently ignored by the BLM—and by an overwhelmingly large and united response from the American public that oil drilling does not belong in the refuge. Unless the draft EIS is overhauled to address its fundamental deficiencies, the oil and gas lease sale that the Trump administration seems so intent to hold this year may not be legally defensible.

Jenny Rowland-Shea is a senior policy analyst for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. Sung Chung is an intern for Public Lands at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Kate Kelly, Sally Hardin, Aaron Weiss, and Steve Bonitatibus for their contributions to this column.

*Authors’ note: To conduct the public comment analysis, the authors organized the large volume of comments from the BLM’s ePlanning page on the “Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing EIS” into one large database. The CAP database includes the BLM’s downloadable “Index of Online Comment Submissions”—which lists 97,413 individual comments—and the “Index of DEIS Public Comments,” which lists 786 comments. In sum, the database contains more than 1 million comments, with 98,082 individual comments and 979,511 form, petition, and/or verbal comments.

The authors then used a computer tool to pull a random sample of 1,000 comments from the group of individual comments and conducted a textual analysis to determine the number of comments that were in support of, neutral toward, or against the proposed drilling. The authors extrapolated that number to apply a margin of error of +/- 3.08 percent to the full number of individual comments. They then assessed the sentiment—support, neutral, or against—for each form, petition, and verbal submission and combined these findings with the random sample to find that more than 99 percent of comments opposed drilling in the refuge. The random sample; form, petition, and verbal comments; and final calculations can be found here.