That the coronavirus pandemic sucks all the oxygen out of the room should surprise no one. It garners nearly all our attention these days, leaving little room for concern about other matters. The Trump Administration has chosen to use this health and economic crisis as an opportunity to further erode and dismantle our nation’s environmental protection without as much scrutiny as these actions would have otherwise caused.
In just the past week, the Administration made announcements about two decisions that will prove disastrous to Alaska’s otherwise nearly pristine environment. First, it will start selling drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area of environmental concern and contention for decades. Second, it will proceed to allow building the Pebble Mine to extract gold, copper, and other metals on the headwaters of the streams that feed the world’s premier salmon run area, Bristol Bay.
Why should we care? The pandemic is, rightly, of utmost importance. We surely do need to pay heed to all important developments; our health, even our lives, may be at stake. But the environment will be with us always. Trump’s rape of it is not only continuing, but even accelerating while our attention is diverted.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been an area of environmental protection for more than fifty years. It is the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States. Trump has considered Arctic drilling as foremost in importance to his initiative to expand domestic fossil fuel production on federal lands. The ANWR spans 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. The drilling would occur on 1.5 million acres in the refuge’s coastal plain, which is believed to contain large onshore reserves of oil and gas. It would upset already vulnerable and even endangered wildlife. Once the drilling begins, it cannot be undone.
The Pebble Mine permit from the Trump administration comes despite concerns from environmentalists that it will severely damage Alaska’s world-renowned sockeye (and chinook, coho, chum, and pink) salmon fishery in nearby Bristol Bay. Earlier, Trump had ordered logging protections removed from nearby Tongass National Forest. It is the largest temperate rainforest on planet Earth.
There is some hope, although more action will surely be needed. Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, are taking legal action to try to stop the plunder. Also, it is not clear how much interest there will be from energy companies at a time when oil prices are low, and many countries are trying to wean themselves from fossil fuels. Furthermore, banks may be unwilling to finance the effort. Regarding the Pebble Mine, local opposition centers on the fact that the mine will destroy the way of life afforded to Alaska’s fishing community. Even Donald Trump Jr., who agrees with the President on most issues, reportedly opposes the mine.
Most importantly, we all need to continue to pay attention, even amid the pandemic, when this Administration continues and even accelerates its plans to destroy our nation’s environmental protection.