Imagine that I want to dig a hole in your yard. Maybe I heard there is buried treasure there, maybe I want to rent space for my new outhouse, maybe I think the neighborhood needs a swimming pool. Whatever the reason, and regardless of the costs, you would rightly ask me "why?" before granting permission. It doesn't matter who you are, how you use your yard, what sort of lawn you have, or how many squirrels call the yard home. You needn't defend your yard; rather, my reasons for digging a hole need to hold up to your scrutiny. While sentiments against development often simply move projects to someone else's yard, ultimately if the reasons put forward for development don't hold up, then that development simply shouldn't move forward.
This past February, I stepped out of a public hearing held by the Bureau of Land Management in Anchorage, Alaska. The hearing — required by the National Environmental Policy Act — solicited public comments and presented findings from the BLM's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on leasing the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. A passionate turnout of Alaskans testified as to why the refuge should not be opened.
I am an old-school environmentalist at heart who does not want drilling in the refuge. I value wild places and think we can't afford to ignore climate change. I think native claims by the Gwich'in people reliant on caribou that migrate through the refuge for food security and cultural survival need to be legitimately heard. I think we risk a ratchet towards carte blanche development in taking public lands out of circulation. These concerns were echoed time and again in compelling and resounding calls to support native subsistence rights, protect wildlife, stop global warming, and diversify Alaska's economy beyond resource extraction. Protesters stood up in solidarity at various moments with bandannas across their faces calling for us to "Defend the Sacred," "Protect the Arctic" and "#Listentothepeople."
Pro-oil voices had a chance at the microphone too. "These young people don't understand what Alaska was like before oil," one speaker said, before continuing, "They say that polls show most Americans oppose drilling in the Arctic. Well, those pollsters also said Hillary was going to be president. I bet they're wrong."
The DEIS investigates impacts and alternative, it does not — by design — justify proposed actions, leading to an asymmetrical discourse where conservation is on defense. Conservation, however, is not being proposed; resource development is, so I have a simple question: Why drill?
While much ink has been spilled on caribou and climate change, there has been too few questions about the justification for drilling. The mere presence of oil does little to defend taking it out of the ground.
Without clear reasons that warrant oil extraction, it's not clear what the admirable efforts defending wildlife, climate action and local communities are defending the refuge against. Costs and benefits are tallied in the DEIS. Money and jobs are presented as justification for development. The Institute for Energy Research, an industry-funded think tank, predicts the project would generate more than 60,000 jobs and upwards of $50 billion. The draft impact statement, however, suggests that exploration, development and production would create fewer than 2,500 jobs, and that additional indirect jobs could amount to 15,000.
Furthermore, most North Slope oil industry jobs are historically held outside the borough, with many outside the state. Of the 16 billion barrels of oil potentially underneath the 1002 area (part of the coastal plain that is oil-rich and full of wildlife), there is little public information on how much exactly will be economically recoverable and when; the only actual test drilling done was an extremely limited investigation in the mid 1980s shrouded in secrecy. While seismic studies have refined estimates and nearby reserves demonstrate the geologic potential, uncertainty is undeniable. But OK, let's assume tens of thousands of jobs will be created and tens of billions of dollars will be extracted. The question remains: Do these benefits justify the proposed action?
Beyond impact studies
The BLM considers an alternative of no-lease sale in the draft impact statement, but they are not legally allowed to decide in favor of this "no action" alternative because of the 2017 Tax Act, congressionally mandating the BLM offer a sale. Impact studies can help tell us how much money and how many jobs will be created, and who might benefit. But even if we grant that such a sale would cost less than the benefits gained, what kind of society are we if you do not first scrutinize the justification offered? We are instead starting our assessment with a mandate for development.
No impact study can say anything about how high the bar should be for a project like drilling in the Arctic Refuge to proceed — that is a project left to us. At a time of low unemployment, high GDP and an emerging shift away from oil, "money and jobs" are not good enough reasons to develop the last intact coastal ecosystem in our country without first scrutinizing the motivation and outcomes of the proposed development. Rather than calling for conservationists to defend conservation measures, let's demand developers defend development.
So, does drilling meet the bar? I don't know, but neither do you until we have the conversation.
The fight over drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been going on for nearly 60 years, but, unless the conversation changes, conservation can win for 60 years and will still lose if only it loses once. Advocates for the environment should stop justifying conservation and start demanding justification for development.
Alexander Lee is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, writer, and outdoor enthusiast who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.