Alaska’s northern frontier and Arctic Ocean waters are teeming with species found in few other places, and many of them are now under threat from the oil industry and its enablers. The Western Arctic Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge provide critical denning areas for polar bears, support vast caribou herds and are essential nesting grounds for thousands of bird species, including threatened eiders and yellow-billed loons. The sea ice of the Arctic Ocean is hunting and denning habitat for polar bears and a foraging platform for Pacific walrus and numerous Arctic ice seal species. Under the sea ice, endangered bowhead whales and other whale species live off the biological richness of the Arctic Ocean.

Nearly all Arctic species are at risk from climate change. But that’s not the only problem: In a drastically changing environment that’s heating up at twice the average global warming rate, Arctic species must now contend with dirty, industrial fossil fuel development.  

polar bear Save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Undoing decades of protection, the Trump administration plans to open more than 1.5 million acres of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. Help us stop it now.


Offshore Oil Development

Over the past decade, the Center and allies have been very successful in blocking offshore-oil development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas through a series of lawsuits, political organizing and media work. We successfully challenged Shell Oil’s plans to drill several exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, leading to the company’s decision to abandon the effort and President Obama rescinding that lease and permanently protecting much of the Arctic from offshore drilling.

When the Trump administration first tried to drastically expand offshore leasing in the Arctic and other U.S. oceans, including trying to undo Obama’s Arctic protections, we sued and we won. That victory upheld the authority of presidents to permanently remove oceans from the leasing plan and caused the administration to suspend its offshore-drilling expansion plans.

But other offshore-drilling threats in the Arctic remain, including the controversial Liberty project in the Beaufort Sea and a drastic expansion of drilling in Cook Inlet, home to a critically endangered population of beluga whales. Both of those projects are being conducted by Hilcorp Alaska, on whose terrible record for safety and regulatory compliance the Center has been working to educate the public.

The Center and our allies continue to battle it out in court, while at the same time pressing for a permanent halt on offshore drilling in all U.S. waters, starting in Alaska.

Oil Development on Land

In 2020 we filed two landmark lawsuits, less than 24 hours apart, challenging the Trump administration's attempts to open vast areas of the precious Arctic to oil and gas. With allies, on August 24 we filed suit to block a plan to open more than a million acres of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — one of the world's most important wild places and its wildlife, including polar bears, caribou and Arctic foxes — to oil and gas leasing. The next day we and our partners were in court again to chalenge the administration's plan to lease out more than 18 million acres of the Western Arctic Reserve — also, significantly, called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — a wild Arctic landscape that deserves protection, not exploitation.

We’vebeen working to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since 2001, when we forced the Bush administration to release information about the impacts of Arctic Refuge oil drilling on polar bears. The oil industry has continues to push for destructive drilling and sadly has convinced the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to open the area up to oil leasing, so we first sued to block that move in 2018.

While the Arctic Refuge hasn't seen any drilling yet, the Western Arctic Reserve — also, significantly, called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — hasn't been so lucky. The largest unprotected wilderness in the United States, made up of more than 23 million mostly untouched acres — including Teshekpuk Lake, one of the country’s most important wetlands — the reserve is home to numerous imperiled species, including spectacled and Steller's eidersyellow-billed loons and polar bears. Since more than a decade ago, more than half of the reserve has been opened to oil and gas leasing.

The Trump administration first released its plan to open up 18.6 million acres of the Arctic Reserve to oil and gas development inn June 2020, even in long-protected sensitive habitat areas. Burning the recoverable oil in that region would release more than 1 billion tons of carbon pollution, the equivalent of running 300 coal-fired power plant for a year. Beyond our suit to challenge that plan, we'll continue to oppose any of the individual drilling projects it allows.  

Banner photo by Brendan Cummings/Center for Biological Diversity