Award-winning Arctic photographer Subhankar Banerjee says the Trump administration’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will lead to more disasters
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Hurricane Maria, the third major hurricane to develop in the past several weeks and the second to rage through the Caribbean this month, hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico Wednesday morning with 155 mile per hour winds. Two miles per hour short of category five status. Making it the third strongest storm to make landfall in the United States. It carried sustained winds of up to 115 miles per hour, destroying buildings and knocking out power to the entire island. Maria has killed at least seventeen people and has devastated several small islands including St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominica. Now a category three storm, it is on track to hit the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night and Friday according to U.S. National Hurricane Center. The Turks and Caicos have already been devastated by Hurricane Irma. Not surprisingly, and regrettably, the Trump Administration is denying all connection between these extreme weather events and climate strange despite the overwhelming expert evidence to the contrary. Instead of ramping down fossil fuel production, the Trump Administration appears hell-bent on ramping it up. One way in which it appears to do that is by opening up the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge to oil drilling. With us to discuss this issue is Subhankar Banerjee, a renowned arctic photographer and longtime writer and artist on environmental issues. He is the author of “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land” and the editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. He has published other books and numerous essays on the arctic and his current exhibition: Long Environmentalism in the Near North is on display at the University of New Mexico art museum through February 2018. Thanks and welcome back to The Real News, Subhankar. SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Good to be talking to you, Dimitri. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now Subhankar, President Trump said today that Hurricane Maria had obliterated Puerto Rico, certainly an act in fair description of the devastation the island has experienced. And even asserted that we’ve never seen winds like those of Maria, yet he continues to deny the climate change as a factor in these apocalyptic, really what can fairly be described as apocalyptic storms. After Harvey and Irma, he said on Air Force One “We’ve seen vigorous storms”. How do you respond to this rationalization of what’s happening from the Trump Administration? SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: You know, all these extreme events that you just mention and while Harvey was going on, there was extreme floods across South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, that killed more than 1500 people and affected more than forty million people. So what we are seeing, what George Monbiot simply called, don’t say Climate Change anymore, it’s Climate Breakdown. Probably, we are beginning to see that Climate Breakdown. And this is happening with less than one degree increase, little over point eight, since the pre-industrial time. So imagine what could happen with two degree increase. A couple of years ago a major study was published in the prestigious journal, Nature, that on equivocally said, that if we are to keep the global temperature rise under two degrees from pre-industrial, all arctic resources must remain underground. So any development of arctic resources, oil, gas, coal, and methane hydrates, would be extremely dangerous. It’s not just simply reckless, or irresponsible, it’s extremely dangerous. But the Trump Administration, parts of the Republican controlled Congress, the State of Alaska Legislature are all moving forward purely to basically fill the pockets of their allies in the Fossil Fuel Industry. The industry that is wrecking the whole planet now. DIMITRI LASCARIS: So I’d like you to just give us, Subhankar, a brief overview of the history of the Department of Interior’s attempts to open up the Arctic Refuge to drilling and then talk to us, please about what the Trump Administration is doing today to advance that initiative and why is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so important. SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: So let me just begin with what the Trump Administration is right now doing. Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke said that he’s a Zoologist, he loves science, and referring to what he wants to do is start seismic exploration in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That it would help him immensely to understand what’s deep beneath the underground in that place. What I would like to tell the Secretary is that, ‘Secretary, please sit down with me and try to understand what we already know, what’s on the surface of that place before you try to figure out what is deep underground. And what is on the surface of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’. It is internationally significant, biological reserve. The largest conservation area in the entire… Scientists call the coastal plain, where drilling is proposed as the biological heart of the refuge and the Gwich’in indigenous people of Arctic North America call the coastal plain where drilling is proposed, ‘Lizhik gwats’an gwandaii goodlit’. Which means, “Sacred place where life begins”. Now Congress is trying to open this up, primarily the Republican Administrations for the last thirty plus years. And the Department of Interior has now consistently established a rather shady reputation. Rather than being stewards of public lands, they are really the stewards of fossil fuel industry. So in the 1980s the Reagan Administration first made an attempt to open up the area. At the time federal biologists were sent Gag Orders. They could not even speak to the media, to the public about the biological significance of the refuge. At the time, the Reagan Administration approved seismic exploration with the limited time window of ’84 to ’86. So seismic exploration was done at that time. But subsequent to that, there was also a major baseline study done on biological and cultural significance, a very important body of work. Fast forward to George W. Bush Administration, where I started working on this for the past seventeen years, and the Secretary of Interior of the Bush Administration, the first one, Secretary of Interior, Gale Norton lied to Congress, U.S. Congress. The senate actually asked the Secretary to come up with a report about the significance of the Porcupine River Caribou Herd calves on the coastal plain. The chief biologist of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge prepared the report, sent it to the Secretary, but the report that the Secretary then sent to Congress was completely replacing the original biologist report with a report prepared by an oil company consultant. And in it, she said… DIMITRI LASCARIS: Subhankar if I may, what was the lie? Was it that the Secretary represented to Congress that this was the report that had been generated by the experts within the Department of Interior? In what respect did the Secretary mislead Congress? SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: So the Secretary’s report, she said that eleven out of last eighteen years, the Porcupine Caribou Herd core calving area has been outside the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Whereas in reality, the biologist report said that twenty-seven out of the last thirty years, the core calving area of Porcupine Caribou Herd has been inside the refuge. So that was just one part of the big lie to mislead Congress. There were other parts that the Secretary used because she entirely replaced, and the way we found out about that was Washington Post published a front page investigative article on this. And then finally, Secretary of Interior, Gale Norton had to apologize for that. And now comes Secretary of Interior, Zinke, who is trying to open it up to another back-door policy. Which is this seismic testing. It’s entirely a back-door policy, a maneuver that they are trying right now. And as I said, it is a incredibly biologically significant place and I can quote you at least a couple of things: The Porcupine River Caribou Herd is right now roughly close to 200,000 strong. It’s one of the largest caribou herds in the entire North American Arctic. And the Gwich’in people depend on it, culturally, nutritionally and spiritually. So it’s a human rights issue for them. And you can look at the website of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, their Facebook page and they’re gearing up for the fight. I work very closely with them. Also, what the media always misleads, that all of the Iñupiat from Kaktovik are in favor of drilling in the Arctic Refuge. This is a complete lie that the media and the politicians… Actually, significant number of the Iñupiat people from Kaktovik, especially a lot of the young people are actually opposed to drilling in the Arctic Refuge. And I work with them very, very closely. So, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain is a internationally significant, biological area. Also, one of the most important things that’s going on right now with climate change, it’s affecting the polar bear population, as you know, very rapidly because of the shrinking sea ice habitat. So they are increasingly becoming more and more dependent on dining on shore, meaning in the coastal plain of Arctic Refuge. And as it happens, the coastal plain because of its narrow width between the coast and the mountain, harbors the largest concentration of on shore dining habitat for polar bears. And I have taken photographs of polar bears dense on the coastal plain, polar bear with cubs on the coast plain. Some of the areas that I have camped and photographed have already been taken out by the sea because of sea level rise and coastal erosion. So very significant impact of climate change. And the polar bear population of the Southern Beaufort Sea has declined by forty percent between 2001 and 2010. A very serious mass die-off event taking place out there. So why would we, and there are enormous numbers of birds from all over the world, six continents and all fifty U.S. states, go up there for nesting. It’s an incredibly important biological place, internationally important and it’s a very important place for human rights issues for the Gwich’in Nation. So it would be both a violation of biological rights as well as a violation of human rights. DIMITRI LASCARIS: So lastly, Subhankar, could you talk to us briefly about the effects of seismic testing on the wildlife that we see in the National Wildlife Refuge? What impact… SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: So yes, so the Seismic testing takes place in the winter time. That’s the time you can only do seismic testing. So during the wintertime is when these polar bears are in their den. So seismic testing, without a doubt, would directly impact the polar bears, dining there during the winter months. So, that’s one thing. Second thing is that as climate is warming and arctic is warming at a much faster pace than the rest of the planet, the permafrost onshore is actually melting. I have a photograph of exposed coffin, where the ground melted away, exposing coffin of a whaler from the nineteenth century, believe it or not, what we call the first Arctic oil rush, exposing that coffin. So seismic testing what it would do, it’s an incredibly heavy vehicle, would actually impact the already kind of softening and melting permafrost on the tundra. Very, very fragile to begin with. So these are immediate impacts Seismic testing would have. Those marks that seismic vehicles leave behind, very, very heavy vehicle, would be there for fifty plus years. But more importantly, why would we allow this drilling in a place that is so significant biologically and culturally? Just imagine… DIMITRI LASCARIS: And of course, the seismic testing is precisely for that purpose ultimately. There is no point in doing seismic testing if the ultimate objective is not to open it up to fossil fuels development. SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: So let me maybe address that what they are trying to do. So, the Trump Administration is trying all-out effort. So seismic testing is something that the Administration can potentially approve without going to Congress by just by changing some rules, and basically extending the original one that only allowed until 1986. But more importantly, Congress has to vote on it. Only Congress can decide when the drilling can proceed there or not. So this is more of creating a buzz that, “Hey! We are going out there! We are going to open it up and blah, blah, blah”. But it’s not going to do much because Congress has to approve. So, that American public all across the country can call their members of Congress, both the House and the Senate, and then urge them to actually defeat this. So, that process is actually what is called a Budget Reconciliation Process. So, President Trump in late May, sent his budget request to Congress in which he included a request to open up the Arctic Refuge to drilling. Then the House picked it up and in late July, the House Budget Committee, not the entire House, House Budget Committee included a provision about five billion dollars that we believe includes language about drilling in the Arctic Refuge, although it’s not been made public yet. Then the next thing that happens is the House and the Senate will actually do what is called a Budget Resolution. Once the resolution moves through, then they’ll go through a process called Budget Reconciliation. Where basically the relevant committees of the House side, which is the House National Resources Committee and on the Senate is the Energy Committee, they’ll pick it up. Unfortunately, because it is a Republican controlled Congress, potentially they’ll try to push for it. But of course, they have tried this process multiple times in the past, it has been defeated again and again. One time, there was a veto by President Bill Clinton and in 2005 we fought very, very hard, I was very involved. Actually, moderate Republican’s defeated the budget reconciliation. So we are hopeful that this will be defeated but the American Public have to get involved, understanding the process, understand the human rights implication for the Gwich’in and the biological significance. And the significance for Global Warming. We should not be drilling in the Arctic right now at all. If we are to keep Irma and Hurricane Harvey, and Maria and all of these things from getting totally out of control and becoming a complete climate breakdown. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, as we have seen all too painfully, moderate republicans are an endangered species. So, I think it’s fair to say we can’t take anything for granted anymore in terms of the refuge. SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: So, that’s why the public has to get involved. The public really needs to get involved. We are of course gearing up, the Environmental Committee, the Gwich’in Nation, we are all gearing up but the public has to get involved. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well this has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Subhankar Banerjee about the Trump Administration’s latest efforts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuels exploration and development. Thank you very much for joining us today, Subhankar. SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Thank you, Dimitri. DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.