The Burn Bag Newsletter: January 19th
Arctic Drilling and International Vaccine Distribution.
Welcome back to The Burn Bag Newsletter. This week, with the world watching Washington, D.C., our writers are watching the world:
The Future of Arctic Drilling Is an Early Test for Biden’s Environmental Agenda, Timothy Arvan
In The Bag: With federal policy on public lands set to shift dramatically, stakes are high for the Alaskan economy as Biden’s ambitious environmental vision faces an immediate challenge.
Last week’s underwhelming sale of oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge represents a significant setback in the Trump administration’s push to develop untapped fossil fuel assets in the Alaskan wilderness. The sale attracted just two commercial bids for 10-year exploratory rights covering roughly 75,000 acres, with a further 500,000-acre acquisition by Alaska’s state-owned economic development corporation which bet heavily on subleasing its tracts in the future. Promoted in 2017 as a lucrative venture that could generate $1 billion to offset the deficit associated with Trump’s trademark Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the sale ultimately brought in under $15 million.
Alaska Republicans have lobbied to open the Refuge’s Coastal Plain to drilling for decades, citing potential for windfall revenues to the state. This sentiment was most famously expressed by former Alaska Governor and Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin, who popularized the slogan “drill, baby, drill” in a 2008 debate against then-Senator Joe Biden. Now, it seems, Biden may have the last word. With a climate plan explicitly opposed to drilling, President-elect Biden places incumbent staff at the Bureau of Land Management under pressure to finalize approval of the leases just days before his inauguration. The leases must also pass antitrust review by the Department of Justice, and the state of Alaska’s major role in the sale could raise time-consuming questions about the competitiveness — and legality — of the bidding process.
The sale marked only the latest development in a signature effort by Trump’s Interior Department to open public lands for natural resource exploration. Indeed, the Trump administration has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to extractive industries through aggressive environmental deregulation, rolling back over 100 policies focusing on climate change, land conservation, biodiversity, water quality, and chemical safety. Such actions have been framed by President Trump as central to his administration’s legacy, even while being condemned by experts as irresponsible, and despite polling consistently indicating the rollbacks’ unpopularity among the American public.
In the Arctic Refuge, legal challenges have ensued, with pending suits from conservation NGOs alleging a flawed environmental review process, as well as a group representing the Gwich’in tribes that contends the sale breached indigenous sovereignty. Even if the leases are approved, the winning companies could become mired in litigation before drilling begins, and the Biden administration could move to strip permits or even buy back the land-use rights. Rising exploration costs, anemic oil prices during the pandemic, and the specter of damage to the reputations of the companies involved only add to the high degree of uncertainty surrounding the project. The fate of the Refuge will be an early benchmark of the Biden administration’s seriousness when it comes to environmental policy.
Why It’s Burning: Biden’s leadership in a fast-moving political tug-of-war over Arctic drilling will demonstrate the credibility of his climate plan’s promises and the skill of his environmental appointees.
Global Cooperation in Vaccine Efforts Is Vital to Preventing Vaccine Nationalism, Divya Gumudavelly
In the Bag: In an effort to combat vaccine nationalism and ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines globally, an international initiative called COVAX is being spearheaded by the WHO, Gavi, and CEPI. If successful, this program could represent a new method for international vaccine development and distribution.
In April 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), partnering with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), launched the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, a global initiative to develop the tools needed to address the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide. One of its three pillars, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), is a multilateral effort that supports the production and dissemination of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. It is the largest international cooperative effort since the Paris Climate Accord.
Nearly 190 countries have opted to participate in this cooperative, with notable exceptions including the United States and Russia. Participation in COVAX includes an insurance policy for higher income countries, as they will receive a supply of vaccines proportional to their investments once all participating countries have received enough doses to inoculate 20% of their population. For lower income countries, however, COVAX may be their only opportunity to secure vaccines.
The Trump administration’s decision to refrain from participating in COVAX, citing its “America First” approach to foreign policy, may have negative global consequences. Though the toll of the United States’ lack of participation will take time to determine, it’s clear that such an initiative relies on the cooperation of countries with prominent geopolitical influence to succeed.
International collaboration is essential for curbing the transmission of a virus that respects no boundaries. Though COVAX cannot distribute vaccines as quickly as bilateral arrangements can, it ensures equitable distribution, which is of utmost importance from a global security perspective.
Why it’s burning: Should COVAX succeed, it could establish a template for the distribution of health tools in the future and represent a significant step forward for global health equity. However, the success of COVAX depends on the participation of wealthy countries, some of which are engaging in vaccine nationalism to the detriment of the program and global health overall.
Update: Since this piece was published, Secretary of State designate Tony Blinken announced that, under President Biden, the U.S. will join the COVAX initiative. The announcement carries both financial and political benefits to COVAX, the WHO, and its partners as a result of U.S. support.
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