In 40 years of chronicling life in the Alaskan interior, Dermot Cole has seen no end of hustles and grand plans play out in America’s last frontier.
He wrote a column for decades for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and has penned six books on the rambunctious history of the region — including an oral history of the stampede that first brought the black gold rush north, the building of the Tran-Alaska Oil Pipeline.
So my ears perked up when he said he’d never seen a scheme quite like this.
“It’s like they’re holding a going out of business sale,” Cole told me from his home in Fairbanks.
Or as he wrote in his blog, Reporting from Alaska: “This has all the credibility of Rudy’s seminar at Four Seasons Total Landscaping.”
What’s going out of business is the Trump administration. And what they’re trying to sell as they get pushed out the door are oil-drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Tapping into the country’s largest wildlife refuge is a goal that has eluded industry and Alaskan politicians ever since the otherworldly sweep of river canyons and tundra along the Arctic Ocean was first protected back in 1960.
But the rush is sure on now. After slipping authorization for drilling into a tax cut bill a few years ago – a tactic used because it wouldn’t have passed as a standalone bill – the Trump administration now is scrambling to jam through a sale as a sort of grand finale giveaway to the extraction industries.
Cole, who says he isn’t for or against drilling in the refuge (many Alaskans support it, for the jobs), says the bumbling and the haste here at the end threatens to turn a big deal into a joke.
Example: On Nov. 17, the agency overseeing the project, the Bureau of Land Management, announced a 30-day comment period, which was supposed to be followed by another 30-day period for the agency to review the comments.
But somebody must have done some high-level math and figured out that two 30-day periods equals 60 days from Nov. 17, which, accounting for holidays and weekends, happens to be the day before Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“They couldn’t have a sale on the very last day, it looks sleazy, but also they wouldn’t even have time to review the bids,” Cole says.
So on Thursday the agency abruptly announced, with the comment period only half over, that it had already made up its mind to hold a sale, on Jan. 6.
“They obviously don’t care what the comments say,” Cole said. “They effectively just admitted the process they’re running is a sham.”
Another example: Major banks have been announcing that they no longer will finance oil-drilling projects in ANWR, mostly due to climate change and concern about bad publicity. Trump said this amounted to “discrimination against these great energy companies,” so in late November he imposed a new fiscal rule to bar the banks from boycotting ANWR projects based on the environment.
“So now the oil companies, among the richest and most powerful companies in the world, are victims of discrimination?” Cole said. “It’s laughable. People are laughing at this.”
Yet the fate of ANWR remains a serious issue. Will this going out of business sale succeed? More broadly it raises a question I’ve had about Trump and his style from the beginning: Is he rash and incompetent, or is there a method to the madness?
Two years ago, when Trump touched off a national environmentalist meltdown by saying he would drill for oil off just about every American coastline, I wrote this:
“I’ve developed my own ‘chaos theory’ for Trump. Where most politicians undersell a controversial plan so as to stir up as little pushback as possible, Trump oversells, purposefully fanning a firestorm. He did it with that sweeping proposed rollback of national monuments. In the end, when he slashed two monuments in Utah by 2 million acres, a result that was still unprecedented in scope, it seemed moderate by comparison to his own previous excess.”
It’s basically gaslighting on the issue of the environment – throwing out so many wild, haphazard proposals that it makes you unsure of what’s real. In the end, though, the ground shifts.
Cole said that with ANWR, he’s going with the incompetence theory.
“They could have done a deliberative process a year ago, without all this flim-flam at the end,” he said. “The sham process just gives the environmental groups a toehold to challenge the drilling down the road.
“But of course I could be wrong,” he added.
The counter view is that once they’ve sold even one drilling right, they will have finally pierced the pristine barrier. This quest has always baffled folks in the Lower 48 – they want to drill for oil in a wildlife refuge? But it’s been a holy grail for Alaskan politicians since the Reagan administration.
Cole says he would “bet a hundred dollars” that Trump doesn’t even know what the letters ANWR stand for. So it would be perverse, but somehow also fitting, if Trump’s the one who finally succeeds in cracking it open for development.
Crazy shrewd or just crazy? We’re still debating this in the Trump era’s closing days and hours, and now the near-term fate of America’s last great wilderness may depend on the answer.