A Bureau of Land Management official on Friday said the agency will issue a “call for nominations" for an oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a step that could allow the agency to hold the sale before President Donald Trump leaves office on Jan. 20.
The call, seeking public input on what tracts of land should be available for leasing, will be published in the federal register on Tuesday, opening a 30-day period for submissions ending Dec. 17, said Lesli Ellis-Wouters, a BLM spokeswoman in Alaska.
A 30-day notice of sale will be issued before the lease sale occurs.
“This call for nominations brings us one step closer to holding an historic first Coastal Plain lease sale, satisfying the directive of Congress in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and advancing this administration’s policy of energy independence,” BLM Alaska state director Chad Padgett said in a written statement Monday.
Conservation groups and some Alaska tribal members on Friday quickly decried the move, after Bloomberg initially reported the plan, citing anonymous sources.
Trustees for Alaska senior staff attorney Brook Brisson said the group “can’t wait” to see the administration in court.
“Today’s action tries to advance a process that has omitted science, shortchanged Indigenous input and concerns, and put political gain and profit before the health of people and life-giving lands," she said in a prepared statement.
A Republican-led Congress in 2017 approved a lease sale by the end of 2021, using bill language written by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The area is home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife.
Conservation groups and the Gwich’in Steering Committee have sued over the plan, arguing it violates the Endangered Species Act and other environmental policies.
Democratic president-elect Joe Biden would ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and permanently protect the refuge, according to his campaign website. Plans for drilling there do not appear likely to advance under a Biden administration, said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation group tracking proposals the Trump administration may finalize in the coming days.
A lease sale in the Arctic refuge tops the group’s list.
A corporation representing Alaska Natives from a village inside the refuge supports oil exploration there. Kaktovik Inpuiat Corp. has applied with the federal government to conduct seismic work in a portion of the coastal plain, primarily on land owned by the corporation, starting this winter.
KIC has said its operator will be SAExploration, a seismic company currently in bankruptcy. Some of SAExploration’s previous leaders face federal fraud charges.
Conservation groups have also attacked the Trump administration for what they said was a rushed two-week public comment period after the plan was announced. That period ended Nov. 6.
The agency has received about 60,000 comments on the seismic plan, Ellis-Wouters said.