Federal agency pegs $4M for Arctic refuge infrastructure

The Interior Department announced Thursday it will spend $4 million on construction to support petroleum drilling within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a release announced $50 million in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service construction projects to repair and rehabilitate aging wildlife refuge and fish hatchery infrastructure at refuges throughout the country.

"The President is a builder, he loves to build and he loves our public lands, so it is a natural fit that the Trump Administration is dedicating so much attention to rebuilding our aging Fish and Wildlife Service infrastructure," Zinke said in the announcement.

The construction money includes nearly $5.9 million for Alaska, with two-thirds targeted to support "heightened levels of activity" connected to preparing for oil exploration in the Arctic refuge.

The money will pay for six projects designed to improve or construct existing outbuildings and facilities needed for "oil exploration readiness and research operations." That includes an aviation fuel storage facility in the coastal village of Kaktovik to supply aviation fuel needed for biological field work and for storage buildings to protect vehicles and equipment from bears and brown bears.

The money will pay to expand a cabin in Galbraith Lake and build cabin in Arctic Village to support field operations, according to information provided by the agency.

Environmental groups and Alaska Natives who hunt for migrating caribou south of the refuge strongly oppose drilling.

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said Thursday the Trump administration is rushing to schedule a lease sale as early as 2019 while in the midst of a public comment period about drilling's potential environmental effects.

"There seems to be no serious effort to look at what the impacts of oil and gas development might be on one of the world's most extraordinary ecosystems and instead to actually subsidize oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with taxpayer money," he said.

The refuge is home to polar bears and the nesting grounds for migratory birds from all 50 states.

The coastal plain of the refuge, between the Beaufort Sea and the Brooks Range, is calving grounds for the nearly 200,000-animal Porcupine Caribou Herd, which annually makes a 400-mile (643-kilometer) journey between Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory.

Congress in December approved petroleum drilling on the coastal plain within a bill restructuring U.S. tax policy. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the plain holds 10.4 billion barrels of oil.

The Trump administration in April announced a 60-day environmental review for a refuge lease sale. Kolton said the Trump administration is "checking a box" on a hearing process but moving forward on despite strong public opposition expressed at the hearings.

"This is a place that Justice William O. Douglas called the most wondrous place on God's Earth," Kolton said. "I think sometimes we can't improve upon nature. The best thing we can do is leave it alone."