In the Blink of an Eye, a Hunt for Oil Threatens Pristine Alaska

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — It is the last great stretch of nothingness in the United States, a vast landscape of mosses, sedges and shrubs that is home to migrating caribou and the winter dens of polar bears.

But the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a federally protected place of austere beauty that during a recent flyover was painted white by heavy snowfall — is on the cusp of major change.

The biggest untapped onshore trove of oil in North America is believed to lie beneath the refuge’s coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea. For more than a generation, opposition to drilling has left the refuge largely unscathed, but now the Trump administration, working with Republicans in Congress and an influential and wealthy Alaska Native corporation, is clearing the way for oil exploration along the coast.

Decades of protections are unwinding with extraordinary speed as Republicans move to lock in drilling opportunities before the 2020 presidential election, according to interviews with over three dozen people and a review of internal government deliberations and federal documents.

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