By Marco Torrez
WASHINGTON — Three members of the House are introducing a bipartisan wildlife protection bill aimed at ending all oil and gas drilling in the Arctic wildlife areas.
Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) are co-sponsoring the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act.
“Americans overwhelmingly agree that Arctic drilling should not happen,” Huffman said at a news conference in Monday in Washington, D.C. “This is a deeply unpopular thing in the United States; people don’t want it. They haven’t asked for it and they won’t accept that the wildest place in our country is on track to be sacrificed to the altar of Big Oil.”
Oil and gas companies currently are permitted to excavate in the Arctic area but environmentalists say drilling damages an ecosystem that has already been deeply scarred by both seismic testing and global warming. Some speculate that a further push from the oil and gas industries in the region could drive polar bears to extinction.
“We in Congress have a moral obligation to defend the ecosystem and the indigenous people who inhabit it,” Lowenthal said. “We cannot give the oil and gas industry the green light to permanently destroy one of our nation’s truly last wild places.”
Indigenous peoples called the Gwich’in (“people of the land”) living in northeast Alaska as well as the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada consider the wildlife refuge as part of their home and the animals — in particular the migrating caribou — their livelihoods. Animals from all over the world migrate to the Arctic wildlife refuge throughout the year. Over 200 different species of birds from all 50 states and 6 continents migrate annually to the area.
“The Porcupine caribou herd are our identity and our identity is not up for negotiation,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. The organization was created in 1988 “in response to proposals to drill for oil in the Sacred Place Where Life Begins, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” according to its website.
Demientieff said the oil and gas industries have access to up to 95 percent of the Arctic area, and the wildlife refuge is the last 5 percent.
Environment America praised the legislation and urged Congress to pass it. In a statement, the group’s campaign director, Erik DuMont, said: “Drilling in this area would likely displace the Porcupine caribou herd from their prime calving grounds, leading to a decrease in the survival rate of the calves and decimating the overall size of the herd.”
DuMont called the wildlife refuge “the crown jewel of our public lands system.”
Huffman agrees. “The Arctic refuge is a national treasure and is worth protecting for future generations to come.”