What Has Trump Done to Alaska? Not as Much as He Wanted To

Six major projects to extract resources are in the initial stages, over the protest of Indigenous peoples. But so far, the damage has been mostly symbolic.

Aug 30, 2020
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of six major mining and drilling projects the Trump Administration aims to push forward in Alaska. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of six major mining and drilling projects the Trump Administration aims to push forward in Alaska. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images

From the untouched far-reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the sprawling old growth stands of the Tongass National Forest, the Trump administration has taken a shot-gun blast approach to pushing through extraction projects on federal lands in Alaska.

There are no fewer than six major projects in the inital stages on federal lands in the state—operations that indigenous groups say would dramatically alter their longstanding way of life, and that environmental groups say would have a devastating impact on the environment. 

"This is a more concerted attack on Alaska natural resources than I've seen in more than 30 years of doing this work, and more than I've seen in any other state or region," said Niel Lawrence, the Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Each project comes with a parade of federally required regulatory steps, including environmental reviews, public comments periods, permitting and more. These steps have been underway since early in the Trump administration and many of them have been completed with break-neck speed. 

Now, with just a few months left in President Donald Trump's first administration, and with a national election looming, the efforts to push through the projects are approaching the finish line. What remains to be seen is how much Trump will have actually accomplished, what could be undone by a possible Biden/Harris administration, and what would be harder to un-do.

As federal agencies weigh the impact of the projects, indigenous groups warn that the effects of even one of them on native communities could be staggering. "The people who are living in those communities understand the ecosystem, the relationship with the land and, as indigenous people, what the original instructions were and still are," said Shawna Larson, the deputy director of Native Movement, a group that supports grassroots-led projects for Indigenous rights. The term "original instructions" refers to teachings about living in harmony with the land that have been handed down over generations in indigenous communities.

Across Alaska, the Trump Administration's Break-Neck Pursuit of Natural Resources

These communities live off what they hunt, but it's not just their food source that's in danger. Larson and many native Alaskans say they are fighting for their right to continue their historical way of life in the place where their ancestors have always lived. 

"English misses the essence of the relationship that we have with the land," Larson said, but she explains it this way: if a person's left hand represents the air, water, land and animals, and the right hand represents the people, when those two hands are clasped together, that's what's at risk.

In Alaska, a place on the leading edge of climate change, the expanded drilling and mining operations enabled by these projects would lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions, helping to hasten warming. 

Here are the six major projects and where they stand:

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The project: The Trump administration plans to hold the first-ever lease sale on the coastal plain of the refuge before the year's end, according to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Earlier this month, the Interior Department completed the last regulatory hurdle—the publication of a "record of decision"—and now a lease sale can be held. The plan is to make available the entire coastal plain, 1.6 million acres along Alaska's north-eastern coast that are a home to the Porcupine caribou herd and a denning location for polar bears. The area is considered sacred to the native Gwich'in people. 

What the Trump Administration has done: Back in 2017, the Trump administration tucked a provision into the tax bill that called for opening the coastal plain. It was the culmination of decades of effort by Republicans to start drilling there, and because it was passed by Congress, it carried special weight. Since then, the administration has completed what critics say has been a rushed environmental review process, and one they argue violated multiple federal laws as it prioritized drilling for oil over anything else. Those violations form the basis of lawsuits filed Monday by the Gwich'in tribe and environmental advocacy groups.

What the experts say: "Trump took the absolute maximalist approach to drilling," said Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney of Earthjustice's Alaska office. The plan, he said, "runs roughshod over the other environmental laws that are designed to protect resources." Earthjustice is one of the groups that is suing the government over its plan to drill in the refuge. The goal is to stop the project entirely via the courts, but even slowing it down could be enough that, should Vice President Joseph Biden be elected president, he could reconsider the project. 

But because opening the refuge was included in the 2017 tax bill, Congress must also be involved in undoing it. "Without Congress's help, I think there's less flexibility for a Biden administration to stop the project," said Laura Bloomer, a fellow at Harvard's Environmental and Energy Law Program, who has been tracking regulatory rollbacks. "But there's enormous flexibility for a Biden administration to change how they do it," she added, noting that they could apply more environmentally rigorous standards that might make drilling there even less appealing. (Industry experts say it remains to be seen just how appealing it will be, given the price of oil, and the technical challenges of drilling there).

National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

The project: When it comes to drilling in a specific area, there's a lengthy document that regulators rely on to know which areas to allow leasing in. It's called an Integrated Activity Plan. In the NPR-A, the Obama administration spent three years writing a plan that identified some areas it said were okay to drill in and others that warranted protection. In November 2018, the Trump administration announced it was going to re-do the NPR-A plan, and a year later a new version was released.

The new plan would allow drilling on roughly 6.8 million acres of previously protected land, including the area around Teshekpuk Lake, an ecologically sensitive area that is the feeding and calving grounds for caribou, geese and fish that the Native Village of Nuiqsut rely on for survival.

What the Trump Administration has done: The final environmental review of the plan was released in June. Once a record of decision is published—something that could happen at any time—a lease sale can be announced.

Unlike the Arctic Refuge, there is a substantial web of oil infrastructure in parts of the NPR-A, as well as a proven record of oil reserves. "It's entirely possible that the Trump administration will hold a lease sale there and get it in during this administration," said Rebecca Noblin, a senior attorney at Earthjustice who specializes in the region. "It will be harder to claw back those leases once the companies have them."

What the experts say: The courts may ultimately be the decider. On Tuesday, a coalition of conservation groups sued the Trump administration over the plan, for its failure to address impacts to several species, including polar bears and caribou, and for opting for a final plan that had not been previously presented to the public or subjected to public review.

Should Biden be elected, his administration would have a lot of latitude to come up with its own plan. "Here there isn't a congressional directive," said Bloomer. "I do think a future administration would likely have more flexibility there."

But if a lease sale has already been held, there could be legal challenges in attempting to stop those leases from being developed.

Willow

The project: In 2017, ConocoPhillips announced a major discovery in the northeast portion of the NPR-A, which it called Willow. A year later, the company estimated that 400 to 750 million barrels of oil equivalent were in the ground there. According to the most recent estimates, the company could end up producing in excess of 160,000 barrels of oil per day (that's roughly 40 percent of what's currently being produced across Alaska's entire North Slope). Though ConocoPhillips already has a large footprint in that part of the NPR-A, the project would result in a big expansion—a new central processing facility, up to five drill pads with as many as 50 wells per pad, a gravel mine, and pipelines that would link to existing infrastructure. ConocoPhillips has proposed using "chillers" to keep the permafrost around the wells frozen—something that would be necessary because the area is projected to warm an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the 30-year project. The company hopes to see first oil in 2025 or 2026.

What the Trump Administration has done: In mid-August, the Trump administration released the final environmental review for the project. There's now a 30-day public comment period underway, after which the Bureau of Land Management will publish a Record of Decision.

This spring, critics of the project were up in arms at the Trump administration's decision to carry out a public comment period on the draft environmental review of the project during the pandemic. Public meetings that normally would have been held in person in remote locations like Nuiqsut, which is next door to the planned project, happened online instead. Requests from local Alaska Native leaders to suspend the public comment period until after the pandemic were denied. One vocal opponent of the project, Nuiqsut tribal administrator Martha Itta, said she was muted during one of the online public hearings. 

What the experts say: Critics of the project say it's yet another example of the fast-tracking of environmental reviews, meaning it could be ripe for lawsuits. A lawsuit would have to wait until after the filing of the record of decision.

Should the project go forward, a possible Biden administration would have the ability to reverse it, according to Earthjustice attorney Jeremy Lieb. "In the NPR-A, the secretary of interior has the authority to suspend activity on leases, and there's no real limit to that authority," Lieb said. "So they could stop development on Willow while reevaluating the decision to approve the project."

In evaluating the project, it's important to look at the big picture, Lieb said. Willow is located near Teshekpuk Lake—the ecologically sensitive area that the Trump administration is trying to open up. "Willow will provide the infrastructure that will allow and facilitate expansion into those areas," he said.

Pebble Mine

The project: The Pebble Mine has been controversial from the start. The open-pit mine would be one of largest of its kind in the world, and could produce billions of dollars worth of metals. But it sits on Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest salmon fishery and known as "America's Fish Basket" because it is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. It's also home to the native Yup'ik and Dena'ina people. 

What the Trump administration has done: Pebble Mine was blocked by the Obama administration in 2014, but the Trump administration brought it back—at least initially. After completing an environmental review and finding the project would not be harmful to the Bristol Bay fishery, the Trump administration back-tracked this week, seemingly in response to opposition from Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., and other high-profile Republicans

Early this week, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the project could not go forward as planned without risking "significant degradation to the environment," and imposed new conditions on the mine. Pebble Limited Partnership, the company behind the mine, now has 90 days to submit a plan that would address any potential impacts to the environment.

What the experts say: The vast majority of Alaskans opposed the mine, and Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan supported the decision to put a hold on the permit. The decision was celebrated by native and environmental groups. 

But Pebble Limited Partnership said the project's not dead yet. "We are well into an effort to present a mitigation plan to the USACE that complies with the requirements of their letter," said CEO Tom Collier said in a written statement. Collier called the Army Corps' recent letter a normal step in the permitting process, and said he expects to see a record of decision soon.

Should that happen, and should the project be approved, it is likely that environmental groups would sue. And if Biden is elected, he has stated that he wants to block the project. "Under Biden, the EPA could determine that the environmental damage is too great," said Bloomer, of Harvard's Environmental and Energy Law Program. The EPA has authority under the Clean Water Act to block the project. 

Tongass National Forest

The project: Since 2001, the Roadless Rule has prohibited road building and commercial logging in much of the Tongass National Forest—one of the nation's largest carbon sinks and the traditional homelands of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. 

What the Trump administration has done: In 2019, Trump directed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. The decision reportedly came after a private meeting between Trump and Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy aboard Air Force One. The USDA, which has jurisdiction over the Tongass, released a draft environmental review in October 2019, and a final EIS and record of decision are expected soon. 

What the experts say: The Tongass has been subject to decades of litigation, and industry expects don't expect that to change now. In July, nine Alaskan tribes filed a petition calling for the USDA to stop its process. Once the review is completed and the record of decision is published, environmental and indigenous groups are likely to sue.

"For me, it's about what's sustainable," said Naawéiyaa Tagaban, an organizer with Native Movement in the area around the Tongass. "As a Tlingit whose ancestors lived on this land, we did practise forestry here. We harvested trees, but did it on a scale that was manageable." What the Trump administration is proposing—removing protections for 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres—is far from that, he said.

Ambler Road

The project: A 211-mile industrial road through the wilderness of Northwest Alaska that would provide access to an area the state says could support several mines. The $500 million gravel road would link the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks to the Ambler Mining District by crossing through the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, and would allow mining companies to access copper and other metals in the mining district and then truck the ore out.

What the Trump administration has done: The BLM approved the route on July 23, issuing a right-of-way permit to allow the road to pass through federally-managed lands. 

What the experts say: Shortly after the plan got final approval, nine environmental groups sued, arguing that the federal agencies violated the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act as it pursued the project. Critics of the project say it would threaten subsistence hunting in the area.

For now, this project's fate sits in the hands of the U.S. District Court for Alaska.

A Biden Administration Could Undo Most of What's Been Done

The big take-away, experts say, is that little lasting damage has been done so far. "I think it's fair to say that this administration set out to leave its disastrous mark on Alaska public lands and waters and resources. Sometimes it has acted as if, if they can wreck Alaska, they can wreck anything," said Lawrence, of NRDC. "But so far, the vandalism that it is practicing and pursuing has done very little really lasting damage."

Between the lawsuits, and the ability of a possible Biden administration to undo some or most what has been done so far, Trump's pursuit of Alaskan resources may end up being more symbolic than successful. If he's re-elected, though, that could change.

"If they could get all of this done—over my dead body and those of my colleagues—the American people, the residents of the good state of Alaska, and the indigenous people who depend on natural values for food and their culture, would lose a tremendous amount," said Lawrence. "An incalculable amount."

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