The Trump administration on Monday announced that it would begin the formal process of selling leases to oil companies in a last-minute push to achieve its long-sought goal of allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
That sets up a potential sale of leases just before Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, leaving the new administration of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has opposed drilling in the refuge, to try to reverse them after the fact.
“This lease sale is one more box the Trump administration is trying to check off for its oil industry allies,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement. “But it is disappointing that this administration until the very end has maintained such low regard for America’s public lands, or the wildlife and Indigenous communities that depend on them.”
The Arctic refuge is one of the last vast expanses of wilderness in the United States, 19 million acres that for the most part are untouched by people, home instead to wandering herds of caribou, polar bears and migrating waterfowl. It has long been prized, and protected, by environmentalists, but President Trump has boasted that opening part of it to oil development was among the most significant of his efforts to expand domestic fossil fuel production.
The Federal Register on Monday posted a “call for nominations” from the Bureau of Land Management, to be officially published Tuesday, relating to lease sales in about 1.5 million acres of the refuge along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. A call for nominations is essentially a request to oil companies to specify which tracts of land they would be interested in exploring and potentially drilling for oil and gas.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said it welcomed the move. In a statement, the organization said that development in the refuge was “long overdue and will create good-paying jobs and provide a new revenue stream for the state — which is why a majority of Alaskans support it.”
The administration’s announcement establishes a tight timeline for lease sales, with the earliest they could occur being on or about Jan. 17. The call for nominations will allow for comments until Dec. 17, after which the bureau, part of the Interior Department, could issue a final notice of sales to occur as soon as 30 days later.
Normally the bureau would take time to review the comments and determine which tracts to sell before issuing the final notice of sale, a process that can take several months. In this case, however, the bureau could decide to make the entire coastal plain available and issue the notice immediately.
An Interior Department spokesman, Conner Swanson, did not respond to emailed questions about the timing of the call for nominations, which was first reported by Bloomberg News. Mr. Swanson referred only to a Bureau of Land Management news release announcing the move. In the release, the bureau’s state director for Alaska, Chad Padgett, said the call for nominations “brings us one step closer to holding an historic first Coastal Plain lease sale.”
Any sales would be subject to review by agencies in the Biden administration, including the bureau and the Justice Department, a process that could take a month or two. That could allow the Biden White House to refuse to issue the leases, perhaps by claiming that the scientific underpinnings of the plan to allow drilling in the refuge were flawed, as environmental groups have claimed.
In 2017, in a reversal of decades of protections, the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress opened the refuge’s coastal plain to potential oil and gas development.
The coastal plain is thought to overlie geological formations that could hold billions of barrels of oil, although that assessment is based on data collected in the 1980s. Only one exploratory well has ever been drilled in the refuge, and a New York Times investigation found that the results were disappointing.
Should sales proceed, it is unclear how much interest drilling in the refuge will attract from oil companies. It would be at least a decade before any oil would be extracted, and by then the drive to wean the world from fossil fuels may have lessened any need for it. Arctic oil production is also difficult and costly; companies may decide it’s not worth the effort financially. They also may fear the potential impact to their reputations by drilling in such a pristine place.
In August, the Interior Department announced that it had accepted a final environmental review of the lease-sale plan and would begin preparing to auction off acreage. At the time, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he believed that sales could occur before the end of the year.
Environmentalists and other opponents, including a group representing an Alaska Native tribe, the Gwich’in, who live near the refuge, filed suit, claiming that the Interior Department did not adequately take into account the effects of oil and gas development on climate change and on wildlife.
The Gwich’in are especially concerned about the effects on herds of Porcupine caribou, which roam throughout that part of Alaska and neighboring areas in Canada and use the coastal plain for calving. The Gwich’in, who have spiritual ties to the animals and rely on them for food, say even exploratory drilling and its accompanying road building and other activities, could affect calving and ultimately the survival of the herds.
Others, including many scientists, are concerned about the survival of polar bears, which come to land from their natural habitat, sea ice, as the ice melts and retreats northward. The subpopulation of bears in the area is already among the most threatened of any in the world.
Scientists fear that even preliminary exploration, in the form of a seismic survey to get a better sense of the petroleum reserves beneath the coastal plain, could disturb, injure or even kill bears and their cubs in winter dens as trucks and other heavy equipment roll across the tundra.
Plans for such a survey have recently been revived by the Bureau of Land Management. They have been proposed by an Alaska Native village corporation, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, using a contractor, SAExploration, that had been part of a similar proposal in 2018 that went nowhere.
If the bureau gives final approval to the plan, it could begin by the end of this year. Even if the survey proceeds, however, it will not be finished until well after the sales take place.
Coral Davenport contributed reporting.