Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Biden Must Be Tougher On Oil: Designating ANWR “Wilderness” is a Great Place to Start

By Macy BerrymanPublished January 8, 2022

Cornell Roosevelt Institute
So far, President Biden has let environmentalists down by not being tough on oil. To better fulfill his environmental promises to the American people, Biden’s first step should be to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a “wilderness” site, which would effectively end the 40-year battle over oil drilling in the region.

There is a scientific consensus that fossil fuel consumption is unsustainable and harmful to the environment. Fossil fuels are finite resources; it is not a question of if but of when they will run out. Until their inevitable depletion, the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal will continue to contribute to global warming through the greenhouse effect, which traps heat within earth’s atmosphere, forcing temperatures to rise and causing direct harm to our planet’s ecosystems and human life. While global warming may seem to be a distant threat, fossil fuel consumption has already proven to be deadly: new research from Harvard University has found that 1 in 5 deaths worldwide are linked to air pollution from fossil fuel consumption. These substances are outdated, unhealthy, and expensive to harvest. 

The time to stop burning fossil fuels is now. The first step towards this goal is to stop opening up new sites for fossil fuel drilling. Despite President Biden’s promise to stop new drilling on federal lands, new permit approvals for oil companies to drill on public lands granted this year exceed approvals from each of the previous 10 years. Ideally, President Biden would soon fulfill his promise to stop distributing drilling permits. For now, however, he can make progress by protecting one of the United States’ most diverse and ecologically-rich areas––the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge––from encroachment from the oil sector. 

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a wildlife refuge in northeastern Alaska consisting of the migratory plains of the Porcupine Caribou, denning areas for polar bears, the habitats of hundreds of bird species, and the land of the native Gwich'in People. This territory is an ideal location for President Biden to send a message to oil companies that he does value green energy. He can convey this message by designating ANWR’s Coastal Plain as the “wilderness,” which would grant the area permanent protection. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been debated as a drilling site for decades. Since the 1980s, controversy over the refuge’s potential for oil has been persistent––in particular, Republican legislators and oil companies have repeatedly fought against Democratic environmentalists to drill at the site

There are two main points of contention surrounding drilling at the refuge. Firstly, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the true quantity of oil that lies under the refuge. Estimates vary greatly, and it is possible that oil-extraction costs could exceed the value of the oil itself if less is found compared to what is expected, about which various organizations already disagree. Secondly, the focus of the oil exploration efforts is the Refuge’s Coastal Plain, arguably the most important part of the refuge for resident species’ survival and diversity. The Coastal Plain is one of the only places in the world where polar bears nest. In addition, the Gwich’in People, the only residents of the Coastal Plain, are in favor of protecting the region, as their survival relies on a steady Caribou migration, which would likely be disrupted by oil drilling.

Granting the land a “wilderness” distinction is the highest level of protection that can be granted to a site. This status would protect the land from all commercial development, aside from measures necessary to control fires, insects, and diseases; in addition, no drilling would ever be able to take place on the land. Deeming the Refuge as a wilderness site would be the first step in a long road to phasing out oil from the United States’ energy consumption. Granting the land this status would send a message to oil companies that, despite the President’s grants of drilling permits, he can still be tough on fossil fuels. Additionally, protection of the refuge has vast public support. For instance, a petition on Change.com to ban all drilling on the refuge contains nearly 1.7 million signatures. Therefore, the White House has two options to push back against oil drilling: either it could stop handing out permits and start to regulate them more heavily, or it could continually lock up the land as “wilderness” to prevent the spread of new drilling sites. Regardless of the option chosen, in order to begin curbing the effects of fossil fuels and to maximize sustainable energy, the United States must decide to move away from oil drilling in favor of more green, efficient, and economical solutions in the future.