Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


Alaska, United States

Project risks:

Environmental Destruction, Social Harm


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approximate location

Oil and gas extraction in Alaska is heading in precisely the wrong direction. Existing oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope are drying up. Now, there is a danger of oil and gas companies shifting their focus to one of the last great wild places in the United States: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Arctic Refuge comprises 76,890 km2 (19,5 million acres) of mountains, rivers, forest and coastal tundra.[1] It stretches from the Arctic Ocean to Interior Alaska, and west to the border of Canada. There are no roads in the refuge. Very few people visit the Arctic Refuge. Nearly all human inhabitants are Indigenous Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples who live in remote villages. They rely on the refuge’s resources, especially caribou (reindeer), to feed their people, make clothes and connect with the land on a spiritual level. The Gwich’in call the refuge’s coastal plain, Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit. This means “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins”.[2]

Many different animals are at home in the isolated refuge. Musk oxen, moose, grizzly and black bears, polar bears, caribou, wolves, and arctic foxes live in large numbers in the plains and mountains. Snow geese, golden eagles, tundra swans, yellow wagtails, Arctic terns and more than 150 other bird species come here each summer.[3] Millions of birds depend on the refuge’s coastal plain. The plain extends 1.5 million-acres between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. Every year, the birds nest here and raise their young.

The porcupine caribou herd numbers around 197,000 animals. Each summer, the animals travel thousands of kilometers from other areas of the refuge and from neighboring Canada to the coastal plain. On the plain, caribou cows give birth and nurse their calves.[4]

Porcupine Caribou travel thousands of kilometers to reach the coastal plains on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. This is the area that is under threat of being developed into an oil and gas drilling site. Credit: USFWS Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

In recent years, oil and gas companies have taken advantage of weakened protections for the Arctic Refuge. After a 40-year ban on oil and gas exploration in this wild landscape, in 2017 the U.S. Senate passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. This Act opened the way for oil and gas lease sales on the coastal plain. The law disregarded public opposition to drilling in the refuge, and ignored the human rights of Indigenous peoples.[5] [6]

In January 2021, the American government sold the first leases. This gave companies the right to search for oil in the Arctic Refuge. 2 private companies, Regenerate Alaska and Knik Arm Services, secured rights to explore in the region.[7] Regenerate Alaska is a subsidiary of Australia-based 88 Energy, while Knik Arm Services is a small Alaskan company. The Alaskan state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority was the only other buyer. However, it has no ability to develop the resources on its own.[8]

Although interest in the 2021 lease sale was low and potential financiers voiced significant doubts, the threat of future oil and gas development still looms. Another lease sale is due before the end of 2024. This round could attract greater interest from the oil and gas industry than in 2021.

To see what the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would look like after oil and gas drilling has taken place, there is no need to go far. As soon as you leave the refuge, you see North America’s largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay. Prudhoe Bay oilfield stretches more than 160 km (100 mi) from west to east. A spiderweb of infrastructure, roads and pipelines criss-crosses the coastal tundra. Drilling sites, above-ground pipelines, docks, mines, roads, gravel pits, seawater treatment plants and powerlines scar the once-beautiful landscape.

Industrial sprawl in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Credit: Kenneth Norton / Alamy Stock Photo

In the Arctic Refuge, this kind of industrial development would break the animal habitat into disconnected pieces. This is especially bad for pregnant and calving caribou. Infrastructure and other disturbances especially affect them. Oil & Gas development would make it harder, if not impossible, for caribou, snow geese and nesting birds to live on the coastal plain or cross it. Oil & gas industry leaders claim only 8.1 km2 of the 6,070 km2 coastal plains would be affected by oil production. However, this statement is misleading. In the refuge, small oil deposits are scattered across the coastal plain.[9] If the oil companies started drilling, these deposits would need to be connected by roads and pipelines.[10] Large beds of gravel would be built for drilling rigs, pipelines would spread across tundra and cross rivers. All of this infrastructure would disrupt and destroy wildlife habitat and travel routes. Additionally, seismic studies would threaten denning polar bears and could crush their dens. This would worsen the distress of the polar bears. They are already threatened by climate change and melting ice sheets. The polar bears use the sea ice to move and hunt seals. When it disappears, their hunting territory shrinks and it becomes more difficult for them to find food.

The oil & gas spree in Prudhoe Bay, right next to the refuge, has resulted in thousands of oil spills in the middle of the Arctic wilderness. Since 1977, oil companies have shipped more than 16 billion barrels of oil from Prudhoe Bay down the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline.[11] Spills have occurred frequently and caused permanent damage. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reported that Prudhoe Bay oilfields and the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline caused, on average, 500 oil and toxic chemical spills per year between 1996 and 2004.[12] In 2006, BP spilled an incredible 267,000 barrels of oil in a leak that went undetected for five days.[13] Workers searched for days to find the small hole causing the massive spill. All the time, the pipeline continued to leak oil onto the white snow in the middle of a caribou crossing. This threatened to poison thousands of animals.[14]

Every major bank in America – Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup – has publicly vowed to not finance new oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge.[15] Canada’s five largest banks have done the same.[16] This is a partial victory for the Arctic refuge. It means that the banks have promised not to directly finance oil & gas projects in the refuge. However, they might still fund infrastructure or provide general financing to oil & gas companies.

The animals, nature and people of Alaska’s Arctic have already paid a high price for society’s desire for oil. Over the past decades, Prudhoe Bay has become a landscape of scattered islands of nature separated by pipelines and extraction sites. This does not have to be the future for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Trans Alaskan Pipeline as it snakes through Alaska's open country. Credit: Luca Galuzzi (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Groups working on ANWR: Gwich’in Steering Committee, Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign