Cantwell Introduces Legislation to Permanently Protect Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from Oil and Gas Drilling

Legislation would preserve million-year-old arctic ecosystem

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined several of her Senate colleagues in introducing landmark legislation to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by designating 1.56 million acres of its threatened coastal plain as wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System. The wilderness designation would protect the Arctic Refuge’s northern expanse and preserve the land for its traditional uses, effectively blocking the Trump administration from permanently scarring this fragile ecosystem with oil and gas development. 

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest and most pristine intact wildlife habitats on the planet, and its million-year-old ecosystem must be preserved for future generations,” said Senator Cantwell. “The Trump administration’s rush to jam through Arctic drilling has resulted in a sham review process that ignores the warnings of government scientists and the will of the American people. I will continue to do everything I can to protect this fragile ecosystem from the devastating impacts of oil and gas development.” 

In 2017, Senate Republicans attached legislation that authorized drilling in the Arctic Refuge to an unrelated Republican tax bill, manipulating the budget process to avoid a filibuster. Since then, the Interior Department has rushed through a shoddy environmental review process in order to lock in oil and gas leases on this publicly-owned wildlife sanctuary. The Arctic Refuge Protection Act, introduced today, would permanently protect this pristine public land. 

The 1.56 million-acre coastal plain, the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge, provides critical habitat to more than 250 species, including caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, muskoxen, wolverines, and migratory birds. It is also the sacred home of the Gwich’in Nation, who are linked to the Porcupine Caribou herd of the Refuge through their food system, shared environment, and long-standing culture. 

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest unit in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Originally established by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, former Washington state Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson spearheaded an effort to expand the Refuge to better protect its land and wildlife. In 1980, Senator Jackson’s efforts succeeded when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, expanding the Refuge to today’s 19.6 million acres. 

Throughout her career in the Senate, Cantwell has been a leader in protecting the refuge from oil exploration and drilling. She has repeatedly voiced support for protecting the Refuge and has cosponsored multiple bills to designate its coastal plain as a wilderness area. In December of 2005, Cantwell led a historic filibuster that reversed a backdoor maneuver in the Senate to allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge. 

In addition to Cantwell, today’s legislation was also introduced by U.S. Senators Edward Markey (D-MA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Tom Udall (D-NM). Today’s action to save the Refuge comes as House Democrats are expected to pass legislation repealing the Republican drilling provisions later this week. 

The full text of the Arctic Refuge Protection Act can be found HERE

Environmental leaders and preservation advocates praise the Cantwell-Markey legislation to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: 

“On behalf of the Gwich’in Nation, we thank our congressional leaders for listening to the voice of our people,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “When we have people in leadership that respect human rights and indigenous voices, we know that change is happening. The Gwich’in have a cultural and spiritual connection to the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Our way of life and the caribou have been connected for thousands of years. Our survival is interconnected to the survival of the caribou. Today we give thanks to all who stand with the Gwich’in Nation and those who respect our way of life.” 

“We applaud our Congressional champions Senators Bennet, Cantwell, Carper, Markey, Schumer and Udall for continuing the tradition of strong congressional support for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This bill would ensure that one of the most imperiled pieces of our natural heritage will be protected now and for future generations of Americans,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “It’s vital that Congress restore protections to this national treasure and halt a drilling scheme that is not only deeply unpopular with the American public but that threatens the culture and survival of the Gwich’in people and would double down on carbon pollution at the very time when we need to hasten a transition to cleaner sources of energy.” 

“We stand with these courageous, principled senators and millions of Americans who do not see this public land shared by all Americans as a resource to be exploited financially for the short-term profit of the few — at the expense of one of the most vital living wildlife nurseries remaining on our planet. As we begin to work together developing equitable solutions to the consequences of our unsustainable practices, and alternatives to rampant destructive development and thoughtless exploitation — we must draw a line. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is no place to drill,” said Helen Cherullo, executive director of Braided River. 

“We applaud these senators for taking action to protect this precious — and highly vulnerable — wild landscape from the devastation of oil and gas drilling,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. “The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is our nation’s Serengeti, home to the world’s most rapidly declining polar bears, the Porcupine Caribou herd, and countless migratory birds, among other species. This land — sacred to the Gwich’in people — is a wild American treasure our nation and planet cannot afford to lose.” 

“We applaud the leadership these senators have demonstrated in moving to protect the coastal plan, the biological heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. From a climate and human rights perspective, oil and gas drilling on the Refuge’s coastal plain would bring devastating consequences. We stand with the Gwich’in people to protect this sacred ground, and we urge this Congress to adopt permanent protections for this irreplaceable landscape,” said Earthjustice Vice President of Policy and Legislation Marty Hayden. 

“For too long, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s future has been clouded by those who cannot see the forest for the trees,” said Erik DuMont, public lands conservation campaign director for Environment America. “Despite featuring some of the most spectacular wildlife migrations on the planet, along with stunning landscapes of mountains, rivers, glaciers and tundra, some still want to destroy it in the name of oil drilling. This option is just plain wrong. With that in mind, Environment America applauds Sens. Ed Markey, Chuck Schumer, Maria Cantwell, Tom Carper, Michael Bennet, and Mark Udall for introducing a bill to protect the refuge’s coastal plain by designating it as wilderness. We urge the Senate to pass it.”  

“We thank these conservation champions for acting to implement the wilderness designation for the Coastal Plain recommended four years ago by Secretary Jewell and President Obama,” said Dr. David Raskin, president of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. “We must shield this greatest natural treasure from the threats posed by short-sighted and destructive developments emanating from Washington. This magnificent resource must be preserved for the Gwich’in people, all Americans, and the health of the planet.”  

“With the utmost gratitude, on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Alaskans, we thank the co-sponsors of this bill. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge deserves permanent protection and keeping the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge off-limits to oil and gas extraction is a moral as well as climate imperative,” said Elisabeth Balster Dabney, executive director of Northern Alaska Environmental Center. “We must listen to the Gwich’in Nation and respect this place as irreplaceable and intimately tied to their culture and identity. Now is the time to fully support protecting the Arctic Refuge.” 

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is teeming with life — including millions of breeding and migratory birds, caribou, polar bears, muskoxen, fish, and an abundance of other wildlife. Oil development would threaten this vibrant ecosystem, as well as the Indigenous Peoples who rely on this sacred land for survival,” said Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president of conservation policy for the National Audubon Society. “We applaud the co-sponsors of this bill taking action to ensure this special place is permanently protected.” 

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” said Geoffrey L. Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “The Arctic Refuge, the largest land refuge in the U.S., contains vast and untrammeled landscapes that are home to many species of wildlife that are found nowhere else in our country. We thank the Senators for their leadership in designating the Arctic Refuge as wilderness, which will protect hundreds of species of wildlife and ensure these lands remain unchanged for our children and their children.” 

“This comes in the nick of time,” said Susan Casey Lefkowitz, chief program officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Trump administration is set to release its plan to destroy the Refuge, turning these vast wildlands over to polluters who’ll exploit them for private profit. Huge thumper trucks could kill polar bears, rigs would scar the earth permanently — all in an effort to drill for oil we don’t need that will yield pollution our climate can’t afford. So this action by Senate leaders could not be more vital to protect the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people, public lands, and wildlife from devastation.” 

“Drilling in the Arctic Refuge would threaten the food security and human rights of the Gwich’in people and permanently destroy one of the world’s last wild places, all to dig up more oil that would worsen the climate crisis. That’s why the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose drilling there, as do a growing number of investors and financial institutions,” said Sierra Club Lands Protection Program Director Athan Manuel. “Now Congress has an opportunity to permanently protect this special place from corporate polluters. We applaud Senator Markey and the bill’s co-sponsors for their leadership in protecting America’s Refuge.” 

“A majority of people across the United States agree that the Arctic Refuge is too special to sacrifice to drilling and private gain,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “We proudly stand with the Gwich’in people, whose culture and food security are tied to the health of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and with the co-sponsors of this bill who are responding to the will of the people by calling for the permanent protection of this beautiful, sacred place.”