An Arctic road has entered the US election debate | Polarjournal
The proposed Ambler road would be 340 kilometers long and run through the Gates of the Arctic National Park where this photo is from. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons
The proposed Ambler Road would be 340 kilometers long and run through the Gates of the Arctic National Park where this photo is from. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons

The proposed road in North Alaska poses a tough question to president Joe Biden’s environmental agenda: is wilderness protection more important than the green transition? 

The plans for a new mining road south of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska were all set. 

It was supposed to be a two-lane, all-season gravel road fit for about 168 truck deliveries a day. It was to be 340 kilometers long, and cross 11 rivers and more than 3000 streams.  

61 percent of it would run through state lands, 15 percent through native lands, and 24 percent through federal land, including 42 kilometers inside the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

But now, it seems, the Ambler Road, as it was named, will remain only a plan. Because last Friday, April 19th, the US Bureau of Land Management, after a final environmental analysis, announced that it recommends “no action” as its preferred alternative in the matter. 

All other alternatives, the statement declared, would “significantly and irrevocably impact resources, including those supporting important subsistence uses, in ways that cannot be adequately mitigated.”

Hit the big time

And that was that one might think; a local question of land management settled peacefully.

But the Ambler Road decision made headlines far away in Washington DC. Outlets such as Politico and The Hill, who usually focus on events inside the halls of The White House and the US Capitol, wrote extensive articles on the matter. So did The New York Times, The Washington Post, and multiple other outlets.

The Ambler Road had hit the big time.

And for good reason, perhaps, because its scrapping was not announced in a simple bureaucratic way; it came with much political fanfare. On Earth Day, April 22nd, the decision was mentioned in a White House statement about its climate action, and in the announcement of the scrapping itself, the US Secretary of the Interior commented positively about the decision. 

“Today’s announcements underscore our commitment to ensure that places too special to develop remain intact for the communities and species that rely on them,” US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said.

Photo: David Lienemann, Wikimedia Commons
US President Joe Biden hailed his administration’s decision to scrap plans of the Ambler Road even though the road might help him reach his energy transition goals. Photo: Photo: David Lienemann, Wikimedia Commons

A conversation about conservation

One reason the decision was rendered political is clear: the Ambler Road was initially approved by the Trump administration. Since the road crosses federal land, its approval was subject to a federal approval, and former US President Donald Trump gave one just days before leaving office.

Another reason is President Joe Biden’s wish to bolster his standing among young, environmentally-conscious voters ahead of the US Election in November. Last year, he faced criticism when he approved an oil drilling project on pristine land further north in Alaska.

The Ambler Road was met with similar protests. Both environmentalists and indigenous populations living in the area were worried about the impacts the road would have on the natural environment.

The area south of the Brooks Range is one of the largest roadless areas in North America. It is home to tens of thousands of migrating caribou as well as waterfowl, grizzly bears, and many other species.

Native groups also stressed that the Ambler Road might disturb spawning streams of salmon and sheefish vital for their subsistence living.

It was just these concerns that Preseident Joe Biden stressed in his own statement on the decision.

“Alaska’s majestic and rugged lands and waters are among the most remarkable and healthy landscapes in the world, sustaining a vibrant subsistence economy for Alaska Native communities. These natural wonders demand our protection,” President Joe Biden said.

This photo shows an orange river flow into the Kugororuk River. Photo: Josh Koch, US Geological Survey
In nearby areas of Alaska, scientists have been mystified by another environmental question: why rivers are suddenly turning orange. This photo shows an the Kugororuk River in the Brooks Range. Photo: Josh Koch, US Geological Survey

Important to energy transition

The debate sparked by Ambler Road might seem trite: a classic case of protection of the environment on one side against the forces of capitalism and economic growth on the other. An incumbent left wing government valuing the former and a challenging conservative one valuing the latter.

But the Ambler Road discussion contains a twist.

Because the proposed mine that the road would lead to would extract copper, cobalt, zinc, and other metals: most of them important in the US’ green energy transition. Copper, for instance, is used in the wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and transmission lines needed to produce renewable energy. A domestic supply of copper is therefore a top priority for the Biden administration.

So, while the Biden administration is strengthening its conservation efforts with the Ambler Road decision, it is hampering its efforts to secure a transition to clean energy. Indeed, in its statement on Earth Day, it made sure to label it as “Conservation Action” rather than the “Climate Action” label used in the rest of the statement.  

For this reason and others, the president’s decision was not unanimously supported in his own ranks. Importantly, Alaska’s sole member of the US House of Representatives, the popular Democrat Mary Peltola, was against the decision.

As things stand, the Ambler Road has reached a dead end. But only time will if before (or after) the election in November, this Arctic road and the dilemmas it poses will resurface.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal AG

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