A herd of porcupine caribou trek across Alaska’s North Slope. Under the new proposal, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would include new migration corridors for caribou herds.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative
Published January 25, 2015
No president in 35 years has made as sweeping a conservation proposal as President Barack Obama did today by urging Congress to transform the oil-laden coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into what would be the largest wilderness area in the nation’s history.
The President’s move to designate 12.3 million acres of new wilderness would block decades of efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge. That coastal region is thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum—roughly as much as the nation’s largest oil field, nearby Prudhoe Bay, has produced since 1968.
It would also protect a stunning, diverse ecosystem that includes 36 types of fish, calving grounds and a migration corridor for a troubled caribou herd, and nesting grounds for bird species that travel to the Arctic from all 50 states. It is the only refuge in the United States that is home to grizzly bears, black bears, and denning sites for polar bears, and it provides a wildlife corridor that stretches from the Canadian border across Alaska to the Chukchi Sea.
The refuge—often referred to simply by its acronym, ANWR—has long been a powerful symbol, a litmus test, about how Americans view the nation’s vast expanse of untracked wild country.
That’s been particularly true since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter was burned in effigy in Fairbanks, Alaska, in part for doubling protections along this vast expanse of tundra and birch and spruce forest that stretches from the Brooks Range north to the Beaufort Sea.
Is sacrificing a small slice of this obscure, rarely visited landscape a small price to pay to meet our energy needs? Or is this a one-of-a-kind environment that should be protected at all costs, a place to start to make a transformation to a cleaner energy future?
It is all but certain Congress will not take the Obama administration’s advice. Just last week, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) moved to propose yet again that the ANWR be open to drilling. On Twitter, Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) compared Obama’s proposal to “spitting in our faces and telling us it’s raining.”
Regardless, the very audacity of the proposal may well force the nation’s leaders into a more direct and open debate that for years has largely been relegated to the sidelines: How should the nation balance its energy needs with wildland conservation and the risks posed by climate change?
While oil drilling can be done safely, the Obama administration insisted in a statement, accidents can happen, and sometimes do.
“The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge, one of the few remaining places in the country as pristine today as it was when the oldest Alaska Native communities first set eyes on it, is too precious to put at risk,” the White House said.
Related video: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge currently protects more than 19 million acres of Alaska’s North Slope. Join biologist George Schaller as he explores one of the most hotly disputed wild places in the U.S.
Still, the lines are not always so clearly drawn. For conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and energy companies, there has never been much room for compromise. But for the Native communities residing on Alaska’s North Slope, many of which hold mineral interests in the ANWR, the debate over the future of the refuge has often seemed beside the point.
For many the risk to Alaska’s wetlands and tundra ecosystems is overshadowed by the risk of drilling for oil in the adjacent Arctic Ocean, home to the bowhead whale that is the mainstay of Inupiat culture. Rightly or wrongly, many of those communities have viewed the battle over the ANWR and offshore oil as an either-or proposition. (Read about National Geographic fellow Jon Waterhouse’s efforts to teach Alaskan natives how to protect local water sources.)
Some time in the next several days, the Obama administration is expected to unveil its five-year plan for oil exploration in Arctic seas, as well. And the administration already is proceeding with environmental reviews for at least some additional offshore lease sales.
But no matter what larger position the administration takes, that decision—especially when combined with the move on the ANWR—will mark a turning point in the debate about America’s conservation and energy future.
Follow Craig Welch on Twitter.
About Sacred Trust
By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun
An industry rating for Imperial Metals’ management of the water and potentially toxic finely-ground rock from its Mount Polley mine will not be released. In this file photo: Contents from a tailings pond is pictured going down the Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake near the town of Likely, B.C. on August, 5, 2014. The pond which stores toxic waste from the Mount Polley Mine had its dam break on Monday spilling its contents into the Hazeltine Creek causing a wide water-use ban in the area.
An industry rating for Imperial Metals’ management of the water and potentially toxic finely-ground rock from its Mount Polley mine will not be released.
The Mining Association of Canada made the decision as a result of the collapse of the earth-and-rock dam that had held back millions of cubic metres of water and fine-rock tailings at Mount Polley.
The self-audited grades would have been compiled before the Aug. 4 dam collapse in the B.C. Interior, about an hour by road southeast of Williams Lake.
Imperial Metals was supposed to report out its tailings management grades for the gold and copper mine — as part of a program to improve mining practices — for the first time late last year.
At least one member of a community of interest advisory panel for the mining association says the grade should have been reported out, as the idea behind the five rankings (ranging from C to AAA) is to provide transparency and accountability to the public.
The mining association should reveal Mount Polley’s scoring, said Nathan Lemphers, a former official with the Pembina Institute who is pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto.
“It sets an example and expectation of what is required by companies, and also an opportunity for the mining association to see how accurately the process can flag potential concerns before they take place,” said Lemphers.
Mining Association of Canada (MAC) president Pierre Gratton said the association felt it would be inappropriate to publish the company’s results in light of the tailings dam collapse. “The (association) members wanted to have more comfort and more confidence in what Imperial had assessed themselves at, and asked them to do a re-assessment,” he said.
Gratton did not directly answer a question on whether the company was asked to reassess their tailings management because the grade they had given themselves was good, and it would have been embarrassing to report it.
Instead, Gratton said given the tailings dam collapse the association believed it was important to get a rating verified by a third party before reporting it.
Asked also whether the public would have been interested in finding out how the company graded its tailings management under the industry program, Gratton agreed that was likely so, but believed their decision was the appropriate one.
The release of millions of cubic metres of water and potentially toxic tailings from the Imperial Metals’ mine on Aug. 4 was among the largest in the world during the past 50 years. It has sparked widespread concerns about the long-term effects on the Quesnel Lake watershed and has put intense scrutiny on tailings dam safety in British Columbia.
The mining association’s decision to withhold the results veers from normal practice.
Usually after two years in the association program — called Towards Sustainable Management — a company reports its self-determined grades. Taseko Mines reported its tailings management results, as expected, for the first time in the 2014 report.
And in the fourth year, the company would report results audited by a third party although they can do so earlier.