The Auctioning of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge

Former president Trump sold a preserved Alaskan habitat before leaving office.

In January 2021, before leaving office, the Trump administration made its most severe environmental action. Officials of the administration auctioned off Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas leases. The refuge is one of the most preserved wildlife sanctuaries in the United States. 

After a decade-long battle, run by the Republican party, to drill in the Arctic, the administration succeeded on Jan. 6, 2021. Many major oil companies refrained from purchasing the land due to low oil prices and banks refusing to finance energy productions. 11 areas of land, divided into just over 550,000 acres, were sold for an accumulating price of $14.4 million. The primary purchaser was the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which lost only two bids. Small energy companies won the remaining bids.

Conservation and environmental groups attempted to fight the sale of the refuge. However, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason did not accept their request. The drilling of the Arctic has been a 40-year dispute between environmentalists and the Republican party. Beneath the floor of the refuge lies an estimated 7.7 billion barrels of oil. Republicans have been pushing to expand oil and gas drilling into this part of the nation, while environmental groups have strictly opposed it.

The coastal plain where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located supports the migration of hundreds of thousands of caribou and waterfowl annually, is a crucial habitat for polar bears, and hosts at least 270 animal species. The Southern Beaufort Sea’s polar bear population is threatened by extinction due to climate change melting sea ice. It has been estimated by federal scientists that around one-third of the bear population dens are within the allotted area for drilling. 

The selling of the land poses deadly harm to the native plants and animals and threatens the people as well. Development of the area would cause many Alaska natives to lose jobs and revenue. The Gwich’in people, Alaska Native people, rely on the migration of caribou through the refuge. They, along with the National Audubon Society and Natural Resources Defense Council, have joined the environmentalists’ fight against the land’s sale. A public campaign has been launched discouraging potential financial backers and energy corporations from investing in drilling. Six of America’s and five of Canada’s most major banks have promised not to invest in the advancement of drilling of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The opposition is so severe that the Gwich’in Steering Committee’s executive director, Bernadette Demientieff, has called on President Biden to take immediate action, protecting the pristine land from drilling. 

President Joe Biden has publicly announced his opposition to energy development in the refuge. It is unclear if he will be able to restrict the legal mandate allowing for drilling. However, since the Democratic Party has won both Senate seats for the state of Georgia, it may be possible to overturn the mandate.