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GOP Quietly Moves to Open Arctic Refuge to Oil & Gas Drilling While Earth Undergoes 6th Extinction

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As the GOP tax bill heads to a potential vote today, a little-known provision tucked into the Republican tax bill would open one of the world’s last pristine wildernesses—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—to oil and fracked gas drilling. The amendment was added during negotiations to win votes for the larger tax bill. The Arctic Refuge is rich in biodiversity and home to caribou, polar bears and musk oxen. It has also been home to indigenous people for thousands of years. We speak with activist and photographer Subhankar Banerjee, Lannan chair and professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate could vote as early as today on a Republican tax plan that would shower billions of dollars in tax cuts on the richest Americans and corporations. Tucked into the bill are amendments added during negotiations meant to win votes to pass the measure. One little-known provision would open one of the world’s last pristine wildernesses—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—to oil and fracked gas drilling.

The Arctic Refuge is rich in biodiversity, home to caribou, polar bears, musk oxen. Millions of migratory birds gather there from across the world, and whales reside just offshore. It’s also been home to generations of indigenous people for thousands of years. This is Gwich’in Tribal Government member Samuel Alexander testifying last month during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing.

SAMUEL ALEXANDER: When we talk about the refuge, we talk about the land. It is tied to our language and our understanding of the world. And, you know, the vadzaih, the caribou, we are connected to them, and we recognize that. You know, we talk about—I hear this talk about development all the time. “We need to develop this. We need to develop that.” What I think we need is a little bit of understanding of the sustainability of the life that we live as Gwich’in. All right? We’re not asking—we’re not sitting here asking for anything. We’re not saying, “We need hospitals. We need schools. We need all these things.” We’re not saying, “Give us money.” What we’re saying is “Let us live as Gwich’in.”

AMY GOODMAN: Legislation to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was quietly added to the Republican tax bill, meaning indigenous activists and environmentalists are now on the brink of losing their decades-long political battle over the refuge. Hundreds of scholars, from dozens of universities, have signed a letter to Congress that reads in part, quote, “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must not be auctioned off to Big Oil. Its natural values far exceed any oil that may lie beneath the coastal plain. As scholars from across the United States and Canada, we ask that you keep this cherished place and vibrant ecosystem protected for generations to come.”

Well, for more, we’re going to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we’re joined by Subhankar Banerjee, activist, photographer and Lannan chair and professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, his new piece for TomDispatch headlined “Drilling, Drilling, Everywhere: Will the Trump Administration Take Down the Arctic Refuge?” Subhankar Banerjee is the author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. An exhibition of his Arctic work, Long Environmentalism in the Near North, is on display at the University of New Mexico Art Museum.

Subhankar Banerjee, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what’s at stake, and why what’s at stake is hidden in the tax bill that could be voted on as early as today.

SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Indeed. Amy, thank you for giving voice to the Arctic Refuge and showing the segment of Gwich’in leader Sam Alexander during the Senate testimony. What we are talking about is an epic crime about to be committed by the U.S. Congress, and we need to stop this.

And let me just preface this by saying that the most significant story on our planet right now is actually not even climate change, but the mass extinction and die-off of species, with which we share this planet. Scientists have told us, are telling us, that we are in the midst of the sixth extinction.

So what can we do? Of course, it’s a very, very complicated issue. It’s more complicated than even climate change. But the least we should do, as an ethical imperative, global ethical imperative, is to not destroy vital birthing grounds and nurseries where animals replenish their populations.

And when it comes to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where drilling is proposed, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is the biologically most diverse nursery, protected nursery, in the entire Circumpolar North. It is a nursery of global significance. And I’m not saying this sitting at a high tower of academia. I have spent an enormous amount of time, in all seasons, in that coastal plain and have seen life being born, being nursed, in all seasons, including winter. That is the coastal plain where the polar bear gives birth. That is the coastal plain where muskox gives birth. That is the coastal plain where 200,000-strong Porcupine River caribou herd, that earlier Sam Alexander was talking about, give birth and nurse their young. That is the coastal plain where millions of birds from six continents and all 50 United States go there to nest and rear their young. And I have experienced all of this personally out there.

And the most beautiful way that the Arctic Refuge coastal plain is a nursing ground has been articulated by the indigenous Gwich’in people of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada. They call it, in their language, Gwich’in language, “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” which roughly translates to, in English, “the sacred place where life begins.” So to turn the sacred place where life begins into an oil field at a time of extreme global climate change, that George Monbiot calls climate breakdown, and in the midst of sixth extinction, is an epic crime.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how this is being dealt with in the tax code, the tax bill today.

SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: That is what I have called, in my TomDispatch piece, is a “grand deception.” For four decades, Alaska congressional delegation have used various techniques, including intimidation, lying, myths and deception, and this is their latest attempt. This is not the first time they have tried to sneak this as part of the budget reconciliation process. They tried this twice in the past. In '95, actually, the bill passed, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it. And in 2005, again they tried, but Senator Maria Cantwell's valiant effort actually stopped that process, and as well as large number of moderate Republicans on the House side defeated it in 2005.

That’s where we are right now, that they have snuck it in, while the entire nation is focused on talking about the massive giveaway tax—they call it the tax cuts–giveaway to the corporations and the rich. And we are struggling with that. They have snuck the largest environmental justice campaign of this nation–it’s been going for seven decades–into this budget bill. So this is a grand deception that must be–the public should know about it, and really there should be an outrageous outcry.

And you mentioned about the scholars’ letter. My colleague, historian Finis Dunaway in Trent University in Canada and I organized this. And quickly, within a day, we had 300 scholars from nearly 100 institutions across the United States and Canada signed up. So, this is being—this is a grand deception that’s going on. They have snuck this into the budget bill. It should be taken out of the budget bill immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Alaska congressional members and the Alaska governor have argued they need to open up new areas to oil development to help Alaska’s struggling economy, which depends in large part on oil. Can you comment on this, Subhankar Banerjee?

SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Yes. So, the way—I mean, I’ll give a very brief history. Right after the World War II, entire North Slope of Alaska, the Arctic Alaska, was actually—was kept off limit to any kind of development through a public land order called Land Order 82. And so, when after Alaska became a state in 1959, and then, 1960, Eisenhower administration—Secretary Fred Seaton—struck a deal. It was a compromise, that he created the Arctic Wildlife Range, which later President Jimmy Carter, in 1980, made it into Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But what Seaton did in 1960 was actually rescinded the Public Land Order 82, to give 20 million acres to state of Alaska, where Prudhoe Bay Oil Field development has been going on. And what Jimmy Carter did is he explicitly said that 95 percent of Arctic Alaska would be open for oil and gas development. What we are talking about is the last 5 percent, which is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

So, when state of Alaska is saying they need to open up, what they’re saying is, “We want it all.” We can’t have that. It’s not possible. It’s like legally not right, and it’s ethically not right. There are other areas where recent discoveries of oil has happened on state land, as well as federal land, on the western Arctic, where they are actually already developing. So the Arctic Refuge must remain off limits to development.

AMY GOODMAN: Subhankar Banerjee, if the Senate does pass the tax bill today and this is in it, is it also in the House bill? What happens next?

SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: It is not in the House bill right now. So what will happen—it’s very difficult to say what will happen. But a lot of things are rapidly—they’re doing this thing so fast. But let me just say this. First of all, Arctic Refuge drilling is not in the budget part of the House bill, the tax budget bill. It is in the Senate. If they pass it today, it will be in the Senate.

And what will happen is that they will have to do what is called a conference committee. That’s the normal procedure, regular order. They may or may not do that. That is the regular order. So they’ll have to reconcile the differences between the two versions of the bill across the two chambers of Congress. During that time, there is an opportunity that there could be amendments introduced that could take out Arctic Refuge drilling. And we are hoping that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the House and the Senate side will come to their senses and remove the Arctic Refuge drilling.

Beyond that, let’s say it even passes, and the budget goes to the president’s office. President Trump will sign it. Beyond that, this is far from over, because this battle will go on for the next whole decade, because what they are doing, they are likely violating various environmental laws. So the first thing that will happen will be legal lawsuits, and environmental organizations and other attorneys are already looking at that. We will be fighting it on the ground, so they are—because they are likely violating various different laws, as I said, including the National Environmental Policy Act and other acts, by pushing this thing through a fast-track process. So all of that will be looked at very carefully. It’s a campaign far from over. We’ll be fighting this for the next decade.

AMY GOODMAN: Subhankar Banerjee, I want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, speaking to us from Albuquerque.

This is Democracy Now. When we come back, we’ll talk about what happened in Somalia, U.S. involvement in a massacre that took place of Somali civilians. Stay with us.

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