This column contains corrections.
Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has had Alaska’s wild places in its crosshairs. This winter, the administration will attempt to auction off the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, which would have extensive impacts on a pristine ecosystem and the Alaska Native communities that depend on its resources for subsistence. And in the coming weeks, the Trump administration is likely to remove protections for roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest—a step that would open more than 9 million acres of the world’s largest old-growth temperate rainforest to potential logging.
But the environmental impacts of these decisions are not confined solely to the wildlife, waters, and communities in and around these two places. If and when the Trump administration moves forward with its attacks on the Arctic Refuge and the Tongass National Forest, these actions will result in a significant increase in the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions—potentially up to 6.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent overall.* That increase is equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 1.4 billion passenger vehicles*; there were 1.1 billion of these vehicles globally in 2015. These impacts will amplify the effects of climate change around the world, including elsewhere in Alaska—a state that is already experiencing severe impacts due to a changing climate. “It’s impacting subsistence,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) at a March Senate panel on climate change. “It’s impacting food security. It’s certainly impacting our economy with our fisheries.” Indeed, Alaska is warming faster than any other state in the country. The Trump administration’s actions—which would detonate a so-called carbon bomb in Alaska—are directly at odds with the critical need to address the climate crisis.
Unnecessary drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
In December 2017, a provision tucked into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act opened the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling for the first time in its history. Since then, the Trump administration has ignored continued warnings of the escalating climate crisis, instead rushing headlong to drill the refuge while ignoring public opinion and suppressing science, even as signs point to there being little oil in the refuge. In September 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for drilling in the Arctic Refuge, which is one of the last procedural steps required before the government can conduct a lease sale. The Trump administration’s climate change denial is on full display in the FEIS: In response to a public comment, the BLM wrote that it “does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis).”
Despite the false claims in the Trump administration’s environmental review and concerns that available data vastly overestimate oil potential in the refuge, the BLM’s own oil production estimates predict a scenario that would be catastrophic for the climate. In the FEIS, the BLM estimated that an average of more than 375,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be released each year during extraction alone—more than 26 million tons during the full 70-year period the agency estimates for oil and gas production in the coastal plain. Furthermore, based on the administration’s estimate that oil companies will be able to extract up to 10 billion barrels from the Arctic Refuge over a 70-year period, the downstream combustion of extracted oil and gas would mean another 4.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released into the atmosphere. (see Figure 1) This is roughly equivalent to two-thirds of U.S. annual emissions in 2017.
Unnecessary logging in the Tongass National Forest, America’s largest natural carbon sink
The temperate rainforests that make up the nearly 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska are some of the most unique forests in the world. The Tongass still has large stands of old-growth forest—9.7 million acres—that have never been logged or significantly altered by development. One-third of this old growth is permanently protected in wilderness areas. Most of the remaining 6.3 million acres are in “roadless areas,” which are protected by a U.S. Forest Service rule that the Trump administration recently proposed to lift for the Tongass. This would make all of the roadless acreage vulnerable to logging and extraction.
The administration’s Tongass Draft Environmental Impact Statement would immediately reclassify 165,000 acres of old growth as “suitable timber land” for logging and place millions more acres at risk of logging over the coming years. These ancient forests make the Tongass a valuable carbon sink—one of the most important ecosystems for storing carbon. One acre of old-growth forest is estimated to store nearly 70 tons of carbon in leaves, trunks, roots, and soil. In addition, each acre of old-growth forest has the capacity, on average, to sequester, or capture from the air, an additional 1,600 pounds of carbon every year.
The administration’s decision to favor logging makes little sense in the Tongass, as the timber industry in Southeast Alaska is dwarfed by fishing and tourism—sectors that thrive in large part because of their reliance on old-growth forests to protect clean water and spawning habitat for salmon and provide natural amenities that draw visitors from around the world. Market forces and local geography have made Tongass timber uncompetitive with wood from other parts of the country; most of the timber harvested in the Tongass is shipped overseas for processing. And local geography means that the money the U.S. Forest Service spends preparing roads for logging projects exceeds the revenue from timber sales. This has become evident even in historic timber towns such as Ketchikan, where former mill sites are being remodeled to accommodate cruise ships and tourism businesses.
In a regional and global context, the decision to subsidize more logging makes no sense at all. Any climate change solution will require healthy natural carbon sinks, especially in places such as the Tongass where forests are especially good at capturing carbon. Even limited expansions of logging have major consequences. Areas where the Tongass has been “managed”—including second-growth forests, selectively logged areas, and areas disturbed by roads and other development—sequester almost 60 percent less carbon per year than intact forests. All in all, the removal of roadless protections threatens a carbon sink that already stores more than 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and sequesters an additional 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, equivalent to taking 2 million cars off the road each year.* (see Note in Table 1 for an explanation of calculations)
The Trump administration’s decisions to strip protections from the Arctic Refuge and the Tongass National Forest in favor of industry completely ignore climate impacts, which is at odds with the reality that Alaskans face. The effects of shrinking sea ice, coastal erosion, and permafrost loss are apparent in Alaskan communities, even providing sufficient evidence for the Alaska Federation of Natives to recently declare a climate change emergency. Pursuing the goals of industry without regard for climate impacts places Alaska’s communities, fish, wildlife, and overall way of life at risk.
Ryan Richards is a senior policy analyst for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Matt Lee-Ashley, Sally Hardin, Meghan Miller, Irene Koo, and Keenan Alexander for their contributions to this column.
* Correction: September 25, 2020: This column has been updated to clarify a unit conversion that affects reported amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and to what they are equivalent.