Teshekpuk Lake, along the northern coast of Alaska, is a 22-mile wide lake that serves as a vital habitat for dozens of species of Arctic birds as well as caribou and freshwater fish. It is the largest lake in the Alaskan Arctic, covering over 300 square miles, and the largest lake in any permafrost landscape in the world.

It lies in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA), a 23 million-acre piece of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The NPRA was created by President Harding in 1923, to ensure that the U.S. Navy would not run short of oil after converting from coal. Testing for natural resources has been done, but the massive region (approximately the size of Indiana or a little larger than Maine) but the area went largely undisturbed until the 1990s. During that time, Teshekpuk Lake and its surrounding wetlands were carved out as a special conservation area, specifically to preserve the 40,000-head caribou herd that migrates around the area.

On Monday, October 26th, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, an appointee of the Trump Administration and former oil lobbyist, signed an approval for the Willow Oil Project, allowing ConocoPhillips Co. to establish up to three drill sites, a refinery, and an unspecified number of roads and pipelines across the area. This follows a 2017 executive order requiring the Department of the Interior to sell leases in the Teshekpuk Lake Refuge before 2024.

The approval includes provisional consideration for two more sites after proof of productivity, according to a statement from the Department of the Interior.

Proponents point to the addition of a potential 1400 jobs and as much as 160,000 barrels of oil per day. Opponents decry the erosion of protected lands that has become a hallmark of the Trump administration.

“Administration officials saw an opportunity to check off another industry wish list box with the public’s attention diverted by coronavirus, and they took it,” said Kristen Miller, conservation director for the Alaska Wilderness League.

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