More than 100 organizations call on oil and gas industries, banks to opt out of Arctic drilling

Indigenous groups and institutional investors representing more than $2 trillion call for industries to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a "natural wonder."

A young polar bear stands on its hind legs on the barrier island of Bernard Spit, along the eastern arctic coast of Alaska. CREDIT: Steven Kazlowski / Barcroft Medi via Getty Images
A young polar bear stands on its hind legs on the barrier island of Bernard Spit, along the eastern arctic coast of Alaska. CREDIT: Steven Kazlowski / Barcroft Medi via Getty Images

Environmental advocates and organizations are calling on major industries to move against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The groups behind the push to keep oil and gas extraction out of the wildlife refuge include indigenous representatives, national environmental activists, and institutional investors representing more than $2.5 trillion.

In a sweeping effort unveiled Monday, representatives from the Gwich’in Nation joined nearly 120 signatories opposing oil and gas drilling in the nation’s largest national wildlife refuge. Through two separate letters, advocates lobbied oil and gas companies along with major banks with potential interest in ANWR drilling.

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Writing from its headquarters in Fairbanks, Alaska, the Gwich’in Steering Committee emphasized that the community opposes “any efforts to develop oil and gas” in the area. The Gwich’in Nation considers ANWR’s coastal plain sacred and has fought against efforts to open the area up for drilling.

“As the world rapidly shifts towards clean energy sources, we are also gravely concerned about the climate, financial and reputational risks associated with pursuing a speculative fossil fuel source that will likely become uneconomical,” the steering committee wrote. “It is both deeply unethical and unwise to permanently destroy lands vital to the culture and existence of the Gwich’in to pursue this high-risk gamble.”

In a separate letter, investors representing some $2.52 trillion similarly asserted opposition to any ANWR oil and gas development. Citing “financial” and “reputational” risks along with “ecological” and “human rights” impacts, the signatories urged banks and industries to “honor their fiduciary duty to investors” and pledge to opt out of drilling.

“We, as investors, encourage expanding support for the wide range of clean energy solutions and sustainable industries in Alaska, instead of helping to destroy this natural wonder,” the letter concludes. Signatories include BNP Paribas Asset Management and the David Rockefeller Fund.

Drilling in the Arctic has been a source of controversy for years. Advocates for oil and gas drilling have pushed to allow industries to drill in the area, often referred to as “the last great wilderness” in the United States. ANWR spans nearly 20 million acres and the refuge is home to many threatened and endangered species, including migratory birds, polar bears, and Porcupine caribou.

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As head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) has increasingly fought to allow drilling in ANWR’s coastal plain, known as the “1002 area”, which encompasses some 1.5 million acres of land. That site is home to a caribou calving area with deep cultural significance for the Gwich’in people, who also rely on the region for nutritional purposes and food access.

Lawmakers like Murkowski, who has received significant contributions from the oil and gas industry, have used instructions from the Republican-led Senate to the Energy Committee to find $1 billion in order to reconcile the 2018 budget as an excuse to move forward with drilling.

Their efforts have found an ally in the White House: President Trump took an aggressive first step towards opening ANWR up for drilling in April when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a notice of intent exploring the potential environmental impact of oil exploration in the area.

That announcement sparked a 60-day comment period, set to end mid-June, during which the public can weigh in on the decision. At the time, Bernadette Dementieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, slammed the move and said the Trump administration’s efforts came “at the expense of human rights”.

Studies have found that pregnant and nursing members of the caribou herds on which the Gwich’in rely for food are prone to avoiding infrastructure like the kind drilling would introduce. That will mean fewer caribou for the community to hunt, forcing them to look elsewhere for sustenance in a break with cultural norms.

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“The administration has made my people a target,” said Dementieff in a statement. “We will not stand down. We will fight to protect the porcupine caribou herd … every step of the way.”

Trump’s support seems to have been motivated more by industry ties than anything else. In February, the president said that he “didn’t really care” about drilling in ANWR until a friend “who’s in that world and in that [oil and gas] business” asked him to ensure a provision in the upcoming tax bill touched on the issue.

But drilling in the area has been met with some surprising opposition. In December, a dozen House Republicans penned a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arguing against opening ANWR up to drilling and calling the area “a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring national legacy.” The representatives said such efforts would endanger multiple species and were not necessary to national interests.

“The fate of the Arctic Refuge and its sensitive Coastal Plain lies in the hands of Congress and we must ensure robust debate on this highly-controversial issue,” read the letter.

The separate letters sent Monday indicate the issue is likely to remain heated, with repercussions for industries and funders eyeing drilling.

“Any oil company or bank that supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge faces enormous reputational risk and public backlash,” wrote the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “Their brands would be associated with trampling on human rights, destroying one of the world’s last remaining intact wild places, and contributing to the climate crisis.”