The outgoing Trump administration announced Thursday it will auction off leases to oil and gas companies in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 6, setting the stage for drilling in a pristine region that has been the subject of a decades-long controversy.
“Congress directed us to hold lease sales in the ANWR coastal plain, and we have taken a significant step in announcing the first sale in advance of the December 2021 deadline set by law,” said Chad Padgett, Alaska director of the Bureau of Land Management, in a statement Thursday. “The law makes oil and gas development one of the purposes of the refuge, clearly directing the (Interior) secretary, acting through the Bureau of Land Management, to carry out an aggressive, competitive exploration and development program for the potentially energy rich coastal plain.”
A lease sale, in an area that’s home to polar bears and a vast caribou herd, is expected to face swift court challenges. President-elect Joe Biden has said he strongly opposes drilling in the 19-million-acre refuge.
Already, conservation and tribal groups and 15 states have brought lawsuits to halt a sale, arguing that the administration did not meet federal requirements in a plan, finalized in August, that opened the door for the sale. The plan said that all available acreage — 1.6 million acres of the refuge’s coastal plain — could be included in a lease sale.
It wasn’t until last month that the administration, in a last-minute move, asked the public to nominate specific tracts for the sale.
The Sierra Club said in a statement that the federal government has not allowed its call for nominations to conclude. That deadline is Dec. 17.
Any oil company that participates in a sale will face an uphill battle and potential backlash from the American public that generally opposes the sale, the group said.
“This is a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to give one last handout to the fossil fuel industry on his way out the door, at the expense of our public lands and our climate,” said Michael Brune, head of Sierra Club, in a statement. “The Trump administration’s rushed and sloppy push to sell off the Arctic Refuge for drilling has been a disaster from day one, and has ignored the serious and permanent damage drilling would do to this unique ecosystem and the communities that depend on it.”
The BLM said in its announcement that its oil leasing program “established numerous required operating procedures and lease stipulations to mitigate impacts to important resources, including extensive protections for wildlife such as caribou and polar bears.”
Just how many companies will show up for the sale is uncertain. Oil and gas exploration in the region would be costly, and the nation’s major banks have vowed not to finance it.
Proponents of drilling have said the potential for a large discovery in little-explored land, where oil has been found at the surface, will generate interest from companies.
Adam Kolton, head of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement Thursday that Biden must “use all the tools at his disposal to stop the industrialization of this iconic national treasure.”
The Bureau of Land Management said it plans to open and read bids from companies on a video livestream at www.blm.gov/live.
A Detailed Statement of Sale will be posted online Monday at blm.gov/alaska, the agency said. It will describe areas the agency will offer for lease, as well as lease terms, conditions, special stipulations, required operating procedures and directions about how to submit bids.
Also potentially on the table for the refuge is seismic testing this winter. An Alaska Native village corporation based in the refuge has applied with the federal government to analyze the area’s underground oil potential using giant trucks that crisscross frozen, snowy ground. Conservation groups have accused the Trump administration of also trying to fast-track that effort.
Alaska leaders have long sought to open the coastal plain to drilling, but political opposition prevented it for years, allowing a single test well to be drilled in the mid-1980s. Oil companies involved in that effort have closely guarded the results, though court documents suggest the well did not uncover economically recoverable amounts of oil and gas.