Trump’s Oil Drilling Plan vs. The Planet, Who Shall Win?

Aashi Shah, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai University

“7 YEARS and 092 DAYS – that’s the time left for us to save the planet”

The Climate Clock estimated the time left for humans to save the planet from the harmful emission of greenhouse gases. It is paramount to reduce these effects or global warming will be inevitably devastating.

The United States of America despite being one of the world’s largest polluters, gave an impetus to increase the emission of greenhouse gases. The Trump administration on 17th August 2020 pronounced to open up a part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil drilling, a step that overthrows six decades of environmental protection for the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.[1] The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or ANWR is a fountainhead to 37 species of land mammals, eight species of marine mammals, 42 species of fish, and over 200 species of birds from six continents, making it the most bio-diverse area in the Arctic. [2] It is also home to the Gwich’in community and other native communities in the region who fall back on the area for their livelihood.

This decision of the Trump government has orchestrated a matter of concern for the global community. Will a fierce legal battle over the fate of the refuge prove triumphant?



The Bureau of Land Management claims that the oil drilling will scout the potential of the Arctic region as a domestic fossil fuel production and secure America’s “energy dominance.” The drilling will also augment employment opportunities for the locals and boost the economy in the Arctic.

Alaska’s Governor Michael Dunleavy echoed the viewpoint of Trump’s government as,

“The vision of Secretary Bernhardt and President Donald J Trump will lead to the responsible development of Alaska’s abundant resources, create new jobs, support economic growth and prosperity, and most importantly, retain well into future Alaska’s critical role in our Nation’s energy policy.”

Since oil prices plummeted in 2014, the state of Alaska has suffered multibillion-dollar budget deficits. The oil and gas industry is the heart and soul of the state budget as a 90% funding comes from it in addition to an annual dividend of over $1,000 to each Alaskan—mostly through a tax on North Slope oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). A 2012 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that if oil prices stayed low, the pipeline would shut down by 2026.[3] Alaska, a state with neither a sales tax nor an income tax, thus needs every dime.

Even with the brewing elections, the government denies any “political dynamics” affiliated with the oil drilling.  “ANWR is a big deal that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get done and nobody could get done”, said Donald Trump in an interview. He applauded that this is closest any administration has made the area accessible to drilling.

The drilling in the refuge was proposed for the first time by the Reagan administration in 1987, but the efforts to open it up has been fettered by Democratic lawmakers until 2017 when both houses of Congress passed a bill authorizing lease sales. [4] According to the bill, the agency must conduct at least two lease sales of 400,000 acres each by the end of 2024. David Bernhardt, Secretary for the U.S. Interior Department also confirmed that the department will auction leases before the end of this year. This decision is in response to the Democrats’ representative Joseph Biden, who has climate plan as a central focus and has announced to permanently protect ANWR and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attacks on federal lands and waters. [5] With the upcoming November elections looming, it will be difficult for the next President to reverse the decision.

Despite the drastic trickle in the prices of oil globally, the administration has a promising approach for the oil drilling plan. The Trump government are gripped towards the potential investors since they are not focused on the spot price of energy when considering long-term projects, rather a fruitful development of the region and profits maximization will be more relied upon.

The move will open up a 1.6 million-acre coastal plain of the 19-million-acre refuge in north-east Alaska taking into consideration the wildlife of the region. However, this pronouncement has received wads of backlash from environmental activists and indigenous groups of the refuge.


Two lawsuits have been filed on Monday, 25th August 2020 in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage against this decision of the Trump administration which jeopardizes the critical habitat of the wilderness in the refuge and the subsistent life of the Gwich’in Nation, whose people have lived in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada for thousands of years.[6] “Environmentalists or conservationists, they’re there for conservation. It’s not a recreation to us. It’s our life”, says Gwich’in elder Sarah James, who has been an international leader in the fight since the 1980s. [7]

According to the environmentalists, climate change has been rapid in the Arctic making the refuge more prone to hazardous effects. The Arctic Circle recorded its highest ever temperatures just two months past. [8]

Drilling opponents have argued that the Interior Department undervalued the potential risks of climate change in its review. In particular, the agency estimated that the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be minimal despite the refuge producing as many as 10 billion barrels of oil over its lifetime. The opponents have condemned the agency review as insufficient and based on older research failing to review the current circumstances of the refuge. The statement of environmental impact also fails to provide an estimate of how many polar bears could potentially be killed or harmed by exploration in the coastal plain.

Subsequently, the lawsuits assert that the Government has violated the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act which gives long-standing protection to the coastal plain, thus rendering the lease as illegal.

The seven original purposes of the Arctic refuge which encompasses protection of wildlife, wilderness and subsistence have been disregarded by the Interior Department. Instead, it designed its environmental review to integrate an oil and gas leasing program, an eighth purpose that was only added in 2017 when the U.S. Congress opened the refuge to drilling. Thus, the lawsuits have alleged that the Department of Interior broke the law by overlooking the original purposes and failing to safeguard those purposes through the oil and gas leasing program.

Adding to this, the Department rushing through the decision amid a pandemic, failed to model the review after the Berger Commission – visiting every Gwich’in Community and taking into consideration that the oil and gas development in the refuge will pose such a grave threat to the Gwich’in livelihood. The environmentalists’ claim that the Government started with a conclusion in mind and wrote an environmental review merely to justify it. The Department did not wilfully set out the review in good faith to falter the dangers of drilling which could outweigh the pros.

To conclude, it shall be kept in mind that the Trump administration intends to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement which committed the US and 187 other countries to keep rising global temperatures below 2C.[9] Thus, the plan of the U.S. Government for oil and gas development in the Arctic refuge seems dubious.

Ever since the industrial revolution, there have been unprecedented changes in the rate and scale of climate change. From massive fires to successive hurricanes, burning of wildlife to the displacement of humans due to oil, countries across the globe have encountered the effects of climate change in an expansive manner.

Thus, it becomes the duty of the Global Community to protect one of the magnificent, large intact landscapes left on Earth. In the wake of filing lawsuits against the oil drilling action, the U.S. government has 60 days to respond. It is the Trump Government’s drilling plan vs. the Planet, let’s see who shall win.


[1] “Trump Administration Finalizes Plan to Open Arctic Refuge to Drilling”. New York Times, 17August 2020. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 1 September 2020.

[2] “Environmental Groups Sue Trump Administration for Permitting Oil Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”. Green Matters, 31 August 2020. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 2 September 2020.

[3] “This refuge may be the most contested land in the U.S”. 2018 Issue National Geographic Magazine, updated 17 August 2020. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 3 September 2020.

[4] “Drilling in Arctic Refuge Gets a Green Light. What’s Next?” The New York Times, 20 December 2017. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 1 September 2020.

[5] “Joe Biden’s climate bet: putting jobs first will bring historic change”. The Guardian, July 29 2020. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 31 August 2020.

[6] “2 lawsuits challenge Trump’s drilling plan in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”. Anchorage Daily News, 24 August 2020. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 2 September 2020.

[7] “To Save a Way of Life, Native Defenders Push to Protect the Arctic Refuge”. Interview, Yale Environment 360, 3September 2020. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 3 September 2020. 

[8] “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The animals at risk from Alaska oil drilling”. BBC News, 20 August 2020. Available at <>. Last accessed on – 2 September 2020.

[9] “Paris climate accords: US notifies UN of intention to withdraw”. BBC News, 5 November 2019. Available at < >. Last accessed on – 1 September 2020.

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