A federal agency criticized for working on the Trump administration’s pro-drilling agenda during the partial government shutdown says it has postponed several public meetings it had planned to host before drilling can be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The dates of the meetings, to be held in several Alaska communities and Washington, D.C., will be announced later, the Bureau of Land Management said in a statement Wednesday.
The meetings are part of an environmental review that’s required before drilling can occur in the coastal plain of the 19-million-acre refuge in northeastern Alaska. After decades of bitter fighting over development in the refuge, Congress in late 2017 approved future lease sales that could lead to drilling there.
The Alaska meetings had been proposed to take place in Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik, Fort Yukon, Venetie and Utqiaġvik.
BLM has been criticized by conservation groups and others for conducting work related to the environmental review in the refuge, though its offices have been closed during the shutdown.
The agency had not publicly announced when the community meetings would be held, said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society. She said Wednesday’s statement appears to be a response to pressure, including from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who chairs the House’s Natural Resources Committee.
The agency needs to extend comment periods and reschedule public meetings at a time when BLM is open and available to respond to inquiries, Grijalva said in a letter Monday to David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the Interior Department, which oversees BLM.
Officials with BLM could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday. Alaska’s congressional delegation supports BLM’s efforts, calling it legal and necessary for energy development, spokespeople have said.
Also during the shutdown, the agency has held previously scheduled meetings in northern Alaska communities related to a separate environmental review effort that could lead to drilling on restricted lands in the larger National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, west of ANWR.
NPR-A meetings in Utqiagvik and Nuiqsut, held over the weekend, drew outrage from conservation groups and some community members who didn’t expect them to be held during the shutdown.
The public during the shutdown can submit comments on proposed leasing alternatives the agency has presented for ANWR through Feb. 11, included in a draft environmental impact statement. The comments can be submitted at blm.gov/alaska, or by mail to Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program EIS, 222 W. Seventh Ave., Stop #13, Anchorage, Alaska 99513.