• The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 to fight drilling in the refuge
  • The group calls the coastal plain “the sacred place where life begins”
  • Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said drilling in the refuge is long overdue

Environmental groups and Native Americans Monday filed a pair of lawsuits against the Trump administration over its decision to permit oil drilling throughout the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The administration last week opened up to drilling 1.6 million acres along the coastal plain of nearly pristine wilderness, home to migrating caribou and waterfowl, along with polar bears and foxes that live there full time. Drilling in the area has been prohibited for more than 30 years.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee, which was formed in 1988 to fight drilling in the refuge, announced its lawsuit against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management on Twitter. Bloomberg reported a second lawsuit also was filed, but the formal announcement still was pending.

The committee has argued Arctic drilling threatens caribou calving grounds, which it describes “the sacred place where life begins.”

The coastal plain is considered the largest onshore oil reservoir in the United States, and Bernhardt said in an op-ed published last week by the Anchorage Daily News an oil and gas drilling program would create thousands of jobs and generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue.

“The positive, local economic impact would be significant and is recognized by the Inupiat people of the Arctic and residents of the village of Kaktovik, nestled in and surrounded by the ANWR coastal plain, who support development. Development of these important energy resources will provide the Inupiat communities who live there with jobs and to keep the lights on for future generations – providing the basic infrastructure and opportunity so many of us take for granted – schools, roads, stores, community centers, running water and basic sanitation systems,” Bernhardt said, adding people living in the area know drilling and their way of life can co-exist. He called drilling in the region “overdue.”

The Gwich’in committee argues, however, natives’ way of life is dependent on the continued viability of the caribou herds and calls the refuge “the sacred place where life begins.”

An analysis by the Center for American Progress estimates drilling in the refuge would release more than 4.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide during the expected half-century life of the field.

The first lease auction is scheduled for Dec. 22, 2021, with drilling expected to begin roughly eight years later. The leases were authorized by the 2017 tax bill.