Why U.S. Banks Shouldn’t Finance Arctic Refuge Drilling
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is 19.6 million acres. Wildlife species such as caribou, polar bears, waterbirds, arctic foxes, black and brown bears, Dall sheep, moose, and muskoxen call it home. It includes the Mollie Beattie Wilderness, which is the second-largest wilderness area in the U.S. About 200 species of birds make their home there. In 2017 Congress approved opening the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas drilling, putting native communities and wildlife at risk.
The Inupiat live along the coastal plain and almost 300 of them live in Kaktovik along the Beaufort Sea. They traditionally rely on marine wildlife and caribou. Around 200,000 porcupine caribou herds migrate from Canada to the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plains every year to give birth to their calves. Oil drilling puts the porcupine caribou herds at risk for a severe decline, according to a Canadian government report.
“If they do drill, that's going to change the migratory path of the caribou,” a member of the Inupiat, David Smith Jr. Smith told NPR. “And that's going to change our very lifestyle. The reason we're here is for the caribou.
The threat to denning polar bear mothers
Last year (2019) was the warmest year ever recorded in Alaska. Temperatures last July in parts of Alaska reached 90 degrees, breaking the previous record high by five degrees. “Alaska has often been on the forefront of impacts from climate change,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
As temperatures warm, more polar bears are forced to come on land, including denning mothers. A little less than half of the polar bear maternity dens are located either on the coastal mainland or on ice attached to the mainland of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Refuge. It is the most important onshore denning habitat of polar bears in the U.S., according to the Defenders of Wildlife. Every winter, pregnant females dig dens and give birth to one to three cubs. If the females flee the den due to disturbances, their newborn cubs die
Federal regulations require oil and gas companies to stay away from polar bears when exploring northern Alaska. Polar bears are located during the winter using fixed-wing planes mounted with forward-looking infrared technology (FLIR) to scan for dens beneath the ice. For over 15 years, FLIR surveys have been used but a new study by a Brigham Young University biologist and bear expert finds they only correctly identify maternal dens less than 50 percent of the time. The technology used by oil field operators from 2004 to 2016 only located 45 percent of the dens known to exist along a 139-mile stretch of Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.
“We were literally on the ground, looking at survey data reporting no dens in the area and then, boom, we’d see a bear come out of a den,” the BYU biologist and bear expert, Tom Smith said.
Some banks embrace fossil fuel divestment
Some large banks in the U.S. are embracing divestment of oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. In December 2019, Goldman Sachs announced it would “decline any financing transaction that directly supports new upstream Arctic oil exploration or development,” including the Arctic Refuge. A month later, JPMorgan Chase made a similar announcement, stating it would not be “providing project financing or other forms of asset-specific financing where the proceeds will be used for new oil and gas development in the Arctic.” Wells Fargo recently joined the Arctic divestment train, announcing that they will not “directly finance oil and gas projects in the Arctic region,” including in the Arctic Refuge
The Alaska Wilderness League created a petition asking CEOs of major banks to stop bankrolling Arctic drilling because “it’s a threat to indigenous rights and to the climate.” Sign the petition and make your voice heard to those who can make a difference in the Arctic Refuge.