The never-ending debate: economy or environment?

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Ilana Fingersh

Slider image from Pikist

Before the Trump administration leaves office on Jan. 20, President Donald Trump continues to churn out executive orders. One of these includes the selling of parcels of land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to various oil drilling companies. This decision could leave the environment struggling and President-elect Joe Biden forced to try to reverse the effects. 

Starting Nov. 17, oil companies could begin auctioning and bidding for parts of the land for drilling. Many see this as a last minute attempt to lock in more drilling contracts before Biden is inaugurated. Biden has opposed oil drilling in this refuge throughout his campaign, even writing on his platform that he would permanently protect this wildlife area and all other areas impacted by President Trump. 

The ANWR is one of the last expanses of mainly untouched land, spanning 19 million acres and is home to a variety of wildlife, including caribou, polar bears, and waterfowl. The refuge is defended by many environmentalists and climate activists attempting to protect the pristine environment from the crippling effects of oil drilling. 

Polar Bear (Sow And Cub), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska Photo from Wikimedia

The debate over whether or not to drill in this vast wilderness has continued for over forty years and now may be coming to an end. In 2017, legislation was passed to allow drilling along the 1.5 million acre coastal area, an act which was celebrated by many Alaskans and their Republican governor. It would allow for two lease sales within this area, with the first being held in 2021. The economy of Alaska relies heavily on the oil industry, which has seen a decrease in recent years, including the loss of 3,000 jobs since last January. Supporters of both the legislation and Trump’s announcement believe that an increase in oil drillings would bring much needed jobs and revenue back to a struggling economy. 

It remains to be seen whether companies will jump at the chance to drill in the Arctic refuge. Oil drilling is costly and time consuming, with yearly overhead for an oil rig varying from $20 million to $1 billion a year, it could take nearly a decade before any oil is extracted. By that time, it is possible the country will be swaying more towards renewable energy than fossil fuels, which could eliminate the need for oil altogether. 

Since there are less than two months before Inauguration Day, the timeline is tight, and oil companies will have to submit bids by Dec. 17, giving the Bureau for Land Management about 30 days to sell the leases. Normally there would be time to review the leases and determine which pieces of land to sell, but if they elect to lease the whole area, it could happen as fast as Jan. 17, just three days before inauguration. 

The dispute over this land deepens the divide between politicians and environmentalists. Tom Jacobs, the Environmental Program Director at Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), a non-profit association of city and county governments, notes that this division has only grown throughout Trump’s presidency. “The Trump administration has a long history of arguing in favor of economic development over environmental protection,” and maintaining the balance between competing goals is “at the heart of formulating good policy,” Jacobs said.

“The dispute over this land deepens the divide between politicians and environmentalists.” Photo from Wikimedia

While leasing the land to oil companies could provide an influx of revenue to the Alaskan economy, it could lead to negative environmental impacts. The oil rigs would drive out native wildlife and disrupt the lives of many tribes still living around the refuge. Issues involving the climate continue to become polarized, and as the last month of Trump’s presidency comes to an end, it remains to be seen whether the politicians or the environmentalists will triumph.