The U.S. Senate passed a sweeping, $1.4 trillion tax bill Friday, sending it to a reconciliation process with the House, which passed a similar bill earlier this fall. In all the sometimes heated discussion of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy and the potential impact on lower income brackets, one issue included in the bill has particularly stirred angst among conservationists: a proposal to allow drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
The 180,000-strong Porcupine caribou migrate thousands of miles each year to reach their calving grounds on the coastal plains of Alaska. The calving grounds are threatened by potential oil and gas development. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER MATHER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
And although boosters of drilling there have long tried to cast the vast region in northeastern Alaska as a virtual frozen desert, the wilderness actually teems with life, scientists say, as the photos above suggest. More than 200 species make the refuge home, including caribou, wolves, Arctic fox, 36 species of fish, and millions of birds, from snowy owls to northern pintails. Many species find critical homes there during migration.
Covering more than 19 million acres of Alaska's North Slope, the refuge is the largest in the U.S. It is the only refuge in the country 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.
An aerial view of lands within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER MATHER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Drilling advocates have argued for decades that oil and gas extraction can be done safely there, while environmentalists are quick to point out that accidents are possible and have happened on more than one occasion.
“Opening the Arctic to drilling as part of this tax plan is simply shameful," said David Yarnold, the president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, in a statement. "The Arctic refuge isn’t a bank—drilling there won’t pay for the tax cuts the Senate just passed. The American people don’t support drilling in the Arctic and it’s up to the House to reject this flawed bill.”
An arctic fox, Alopex lagopus, in tall grasses. Its coat is changing from winter white to summer brown. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER MATHER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Last week, 37 leading Arctic wildlife scientists wrote a letter urging Congress to block drilling in the refuge. That's still a possibility as the bill gets hashed out between the two chambers of Congress. Support for drilling is being driven by Alaska's representatives.
The refuge was established in the 1960s to protect wilderness and wildlife, but the oil industry has often complained that it also holds an estimated 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum under the ground.
Flurries of snow geese drift above the largest U.S. wildlife sanctuary. - PHOTOGRAPH BY LOWELL GEORGIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Republicans have long argued that the refuge holds the keys to energy independence and an economic boom, while Democrats have often said oil and gas drilling will disrupt delicate ecosystems and the communities that rely on them. The debate often represents a schism in American political ideology that claims to champion the same goals but attempts to meet those goals through different methods.
An oil well is drilled on native-owned land. - PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES P. BLAIR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Audubon's Yarnold says the "revenue numbers promised [by the provision in the GOP tax bill] don’t add up and paint a picture of the impact Senator Murkowski’s bill could have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Further, by making oil and gas drilling a primary purpose of the wildlife refuge and mandating an 800,000-acre oil and gas program, Senator Murkowski’s bill effectively undermines the environmental and wildlife protections that typically apply to oil and gas development on federal lands."
Lead image: Musk oxen put up a defensive ring around their young in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. - Photograph by Peter Mather, National Geographic Creative.