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Arctic Refuge needs protection from drilling

When you’re out and about in nature here in New Mexico, the northern reaches of Alaska are probably not the first thing you think about. But maybe you should. The reason: So many of the beautiful birds we see have migrated to our state from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the sandhill crane. Now is the time to pay attention to the connection between our wildlife and this special place far to the north.

You see, the Trump administration recently finalized plans to begin oil leasing in the Arctic Refuge, which puts so many things we hold dear at risk. Often called “America’s last great wilderness,” the refuge covers approximately 19.3 million acres but features no roads or other human infrastructure.

If not stopped, the administration’s plan would prove catastrophic for the 900 polar bears that call the coastal plain home. Oil and gas exploration in the refuge raises massive concerns about den abandonment, harming young and vulnerable cubs. Beyond that, the plain provides calving ground for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which the indigenous Gwich’in people have depended on as a central part of their way of life for thousands of years. Finally, the plan would threaten extinction for 69 bird species.

This slapdash and tragic plan by the federal Bureau of Land Management, announced in August, would open all 1.56 million acres of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain to fossil fuel excavation.

With the federal government showing a willingness to bulldoze a national treasure in Alaska, what would stop them from allowing drilling right outside Chaco Canyon? Sadly, we know the answer to this question.

For too long, our federal leaders have prioritized the extraction of resources far more than the protection of wild places. We simply can’t let this continue, so Environment New Mexico has joined with others to sue the Trump administration over the Arctic drilling plan.

We’ve gotten involved because to do otherwise would not only lead to the desecration of an American jewel, but would also set a perilous precedent for oil and gas across America. Simply put, this plan is completely blind to the reality that, in 2020, dangerously pulling more fossil fuels from the ground is a fool’s errand when clean renewable energy options are rapidly on the rise.

In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Energy Transition Act, setting a target for 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2045. Already, the state ranks fifth in the nation for wind and solar generation as a percentage of electricity consumption. Six other states – Hawaii, California, Maine, New York, Virginia and Washington – have also passed similar 100% renewable energy laws. These serious-minded commitments provide a crucial push to transition away from fossil fuels toward clean energy. It also signals what kind of world those of us in New Mexico hope to create and live in.

We cannot commit to 19th century fossil fuel technology for another half-century and hope to make the changes we need to comprehensively usher in 21st century clean energy. But that is exactly what U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is suggesting. Following his department’s announcement, the secretary said that oil production could begin in the refuge in eight years and last for 50 years.

We need our national leaders to do what New Mexico’s lawmakers are doing – embrace a future filled with renewable energy and clean transportation options. At the same time, we also desperately need more nature in our lives – which will be made all the richer with birds from the North returning each year and knowing that polar bears are safely denning on the north slope of Alaska.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must stay wild.

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