How we are working to protect Arctic people, tundra and wildlife

Public lands in the Arctic region of Alaska are facing threats from oil drilling. Environment America and our coalition partners are pursuing multiple strategies to protect them.

Steven Chase, USFWS | Public Domain

The Arctic region of Alaska boasts vast landscapes that are home to thousands of species of wildlife. Indigenous people have lived on this land for centuries, relying on caribou and other animals for food, clothing and spiritual connection. The federal government manages two large areas of land there: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the Refuge) and the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), also known as the Western Arctic Reserve (the Reserve).

The Refuge

The Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, contains approximately 19 millions acres and is. It lies on the traditional lands of the Gwich’in People. Its coastal plain, “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins), is sacred to the Gwich’in and crucial for many native wildlife species, especially the Porcupine Caribou herd that migrates thousands of miles from the Northwest Territories and the Yukon every year to birth calves.

The Reserve

The Reserve, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, covers approximately 23 million acres. It borders several Inupiat villages, including Nuiqsut. The area serves as an important habitat for endangered birds, the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd and other animals. 

What’s going on in the Arctic?

Perhaps the most prominent news stories to come from the Arctic in recent years have been about potential oil drilling — especially the ConocoPhillips Willow project. Prior to the hubbub about Willow, you may have read about big companies such as Chubb insurance or Bank of America making commitments to not insure or finance oil drilling in the Arctic. Also in the past couple of years, the Trump administration held a lease sale in January 2021, but no major oil companies bothered to bid on the available tracts

Given all we know about how bad oil drilling is for the environment and public health, why is this still a story in 2023 in places such as the Refuge and the Reserve?

In 2017, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a Tax Act that required holding two lease sales before 2024. The first lease sale took place in 2021 but was financially unsuccessful. Since then, all but one of the leaseholders have canceled their leases. However, AIDEA, an entity affiliated with the Alaska state government, still holds seven leases in the Refuge. As long as those leases exist, there is a possibility that they may be developed. Additionally, the law compels the government to hold another lease sale by 2024, potentially resulting in more leases being awarded and developed.

When it comes to the Reserve, it’s open for leasing. Since 1999, oil companies have bid on 7 million acres in 15 lease sales, and some of those companies have already developed drilling operations on that leased land. In 2013, the Obama administration opened up approximately 11 million acres for future oil and gas drilling. Then, in 2020, the Trump administration unveiled a new plan that aimed to develop more than 80% of the Reserve’s 23 million acres for oil. While the Biden administration has not leased any more acreage there, in March 2023, the administration approved the Willow Project, which includes three oil wells, roads, gravel pits and an airstrip. 

What are we doing to protect Alaska’s arctic region?

  1. We’re campaigning to convince Congress to pass legislation. Congress has the power to prevent drilling on federal lands. Working with allies in Congress, our coalition has been working to build support in Congress for:
  • Ending the coastal plain leasing program in the Refuge. Congress passed the Tax Act in 2017 and Congress can reverse course by passing a new bill to remove the lease sale requirement for the Refuge.
  • Permanent protection for the Refuge. The most effective way to permanently end drilling in the Arctic is for Congress to pass a law that changes the purpose of the areas that are currently designated for oil drilling. The bipartisan Arctic Refuge Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Reprs. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) would make the coastal plain of the Refuge in the wilderness area off-limits forever.


  1. We’re working to convince President Biden and his administration to take executive action. The president and his agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, can take unilateral actions to protect America’s Arctic, including:
    • Reforming the coastal plain drilling program. This program, required by the 2017 Tax Act and implemented by the Trump administration, was poorly executed, skimping on environmental review. They also announced the lease sale date while the call for nominations, the process where they get input about which areas to lease, was still open. The Biden administration is currently conducting a “comprehensive analysis [of the coastal plain oil and gas leasing program] under the National Environmental Policy Act.” So far, that’s included an initial scoping process and public comment period conducted in 2021. The next step is the launch of an Environmental Impact Statement process, which includes a public comment period, after which the BLM will issue new procedures for implementing the coastal plain drilling program.
    • Canceling the leases in the Refuge. We are calling on the Biden administration to cancel AIDEA’s leases in the Refuge. The administration has acknowledged that the program and lease sale implemented by the Trump administration was extremely problematic. We’re calling on the Biden administration to wipe the slate clean.
  • Enacting new rules to protect the Reserve. When the Biden administration approved the Willow project, it announced a plan to create a rule to protect special areas going forward. If a strong rule is enacted, future administrations won’t be able to flip-flop back and forth on protections, as we’ve seen since 2013. We’ll need as many people as possible to participate in the upcoming comment period to convince the government to make the new rules as strong as possible.
  • Tightening regulations and bonding requirements for existing leases in the Reserve. 


  1. We’re seeking legal recourse through the courts.
  • In August 2020 Gwich’in & allied groups took the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management to court for moving forward with the rushed and ill-considered coastal plain leasing program. While the Trump administration is no longer in office, the lawsuit will remain active until the coastal plain leasing program is revised and the plaintiffs feel that their issues with the program have been addressed.
  • In September 2021, groups sued the Biden administration for issuing a regulation that allows oil and gas companies to harass Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears despite the likelihood of causing injury and death.
  • In November 2021, AIDEA, a state agency in Alaska that was awarded seven leases in the Refuge, sued the Biden administration over the suspension of those leases. The Gwich’in Steering Committee and environmental groups including Environment America intervened on the side of the Biden administration, defending the suspension of the leases while the coastal plain leasing program was being reassessed. In August 2023, a judge ruled in favor of the Biden administration, upholding the administration’s decision to suspend the leases.
  • In March 2023, Inupiat & conservation groups sued the Interior Department, charging them with violating an array of laws when authorizing ConocoPhillips’ Willow project.


  1. We’re encouraging corporations to refrain from engaging in Arctic oil drilling. Our ultimate goal is to get federal permanent protection for these areas. But we can also appeal directly to the private sector to act if the government is moving more slowly than we want.
  • Oil companies
    • After years of pressure from indigenous groups and environmental advocacy organizations, Chevron and Hilcorp paid $10 million to terminate their legacy leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
    • In response to a shareholder resolution filed by Green Century Capital Management asking the oil company to “[assess] the benefits and drawbacks of committing to not engage in oil and gas exploration and production in the AMAP area, particularly in the Arctic Refuge,” ExxonMobil informed its shareholders that the company has no plans for new oil and gas exploration or development in the refuge. 
    • We are working to convince ConocoPhillips to reduce its impact in the arctic.
    • Regenerate Alaska (a subsidiary of 88 Energy) and Knik Arm Services abandoned leases that they acquired through the January 2021 Arctic Refuge lease sale. 
  • Banks. As of December 2020, every single major bank in the United States had come out against funding Arctic drilling.
  • Insurance companies
    • In April 2023, Chubb became the first American insurance company to commit to not underwrite oil and gas development in the Refuge.
    • Twenty insurance companies have committed to not insure oil & gas projects in the Arctic Refuge
    • We are running campaigns to convince other U.S. insurance companies such as Liberty Mutual, Travelers and The Hartford to take a page from Chubb’s book and commit not to underwrite arctic drilling.

Ellen Montgomery

Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America

Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.

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