WASHINGTON — The Interior Department is launching the regulatory process that will guide eventual lease sales to oil companies that want to drill in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The process will begin with an environmental review, outlined in a notice scheduled to be published Friday in the Federal Register. Congress approved potential drilling in a portion of the refuge as part of 2017 tax law, and ordered the department to hold at least two lease sales there by the end of 2024.
The notice launches 60 days of public comment before the environmental review, including five public meetings hosted by the Bureau of Land Management, in Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik and Utqiaġvik. More public meetings can be held "if there is strong community interest," the notice said.
The environmental review will help set the terms of the lease sales, including scope, stipulations and conservation requirements, the notice said. Drilling footprints, by law, will be limited to 2,000 surface acres in the 1.6-million-acre coastal plain. Individual lease sales will cover a minimum of 400,000 acres, according to the notice. The entire refuge covers 19.3 million acres.
The environmental review won't only inform the lease sales but also activities afterward, the Federal Register notice said. That includes "seismic and drilling exploration, development, and transportation of oil and gas in and from the Coastal Plain." But those activities will still require additional BLM approval and federal environmental review, "including proposed seismic and exploration plans or development proposals," the notice said.
Proponents of drilling in ANWR hope to see a lease sale as early as 2019. But it will likely be a decade before there is any actual drilling, according to Alaska's congressional delegation, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young.
Alaska politicians have spent decades working to open the ANWR coastal plain to drilling. They hope ANWR — projected to hold roughly 10 billion barrels of oil — will boost Alaska's flagging oil-based economy. The so-called "10-02" area on the refuge's coastal plain, named for a provision of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, is also physically close to the existing Trans Alaska Pipeline System, which has been operating far from capacity for years.
The lawmakers have said that more seismic research may be needed to determine how much oil is in the area, and where it is.
The notice "signals the first step in a very long process," said Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Moriarty cited widespread support among Alaskans for "leasing and responsible development in the coastal plain."
Moriarty noted that the public meetings will take place in Alaska rather than in Washington, D.C. "This administration recognizes that they need to hear from Alaskans. … I'm encouraged by that," she said.
Top Interior Department officials visited Kaktovik and Utgiagvik in March to promote plans to launch the regulatory process. The visitors included Joe Balash, Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, an Alaskan who previously worked for Sen. Dan Sullivan.
Whether and when drilling could happen in the refuge remains unclear, Moriarty said, noting that oil companies tend to remain mum about their plans because of the competitive process of leasing the land.
"But I can tell you I would be shocked if no one showed" at a lease sale, she said.
"I'm aware aware of no other federal onshore (drilling area) that has the same amount" of potential resources, she said.
How the price of oil will play in is a longer-term question, she said. It matters not what the price is on the day of a lease sale, but what companies think it will be down the road. "This is a 30-, 40-year prospect," Moriarty said.
But environmentalists and members of the Gwich'in Alaska and Canadian Native groups say they are not finished with their decades-long fight to keep drillers out of ANWR.
Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League said the Trump administration is engaging in a "reckless, mad rush to drill in the wildest place left in America." Kolton said that rush is an effort to "beat the political clock" and advance drilling under the current administration.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said her group plans to "fight every step of the way."
"They are not going to get into the Arctic refuge," Demientieff said.
Opponents of drilling in ANWR said their next step is to engage in the public process and bring hundreds of thousands of national opponents into the process.
"We plan to bring intense legal scrutiny and engagement" to the initial environmental review, "as well as the later steps that (the Interior Department) will have to take," said Brook Brisson, staff attorney for green group Trustees for Alaska.
Nine congressional Democrats, in a letter Thursday to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, pushed back on what they said was a "rush" to advance the process.
"The rush is especially egregious because it has clearly been stated in the press that the goal of this timeline is to meet the purely political deadline of holding a lease sale within this presidential term," the letter said. "Playing politics with our nation's most important and irreplaceable public lands is irresponsible, and this effort is wholly incompatible with your responsibility to move forward in a way that is compatible with protecting the wilderness and wildlife values of the Refuge and needs of the Gwich'in people."
Balash of the Interior Department said Thursday that the process is intended to move along, given a secretarial order that Zinke signed in 2017 limiting such reviews "to a certain number of pages and a certain amount of time."
"As of today, I intend to comply with that order," he said.
But Balash also said he is "prepared to deal with the incredible volume of voices that we're going to hear from here in this process."
And he reiterated what he told Alaskans in March when visiting the North Slope — that "we have to listen to everyone, but we are going to pay close attention to what it is the people in the region and in proximity say."
Balash was not surprised by the opposition to the plans to move forward on ANWR drilling.
"This argument was going on in Congress for 30-some-odd years. Nobody's going to just roll over on this," he said.
Nevertheless, Congress gave the Interior Department a charge to create a leasing program, Balash said. "We now have a job."
Clarification: This story previously noted Gov. Bill Walker's request to the legislature for $10 million to pay for seismic testing in the 10-02 area of ANWR. The governor withdrew the request.