The Trump administration said Thursday that it would sell oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in early January, further accelerating its last-ditch effort to allow drilling there.
The Bureau of Land Management said the sale would take place on Jan. 6, following the publication next Monday of a “notice of sale” in the Federal Register. That notice requires a 30-day comment period before a sale can occur.
The announcement of a sale date came just 16 days after the bureau announced a “call for nominations,” which allowed oil companies and others to spell out which tracts of land were of interest for drilling.
Normally, a call for nominations allows 30 days or longer for such responses, followed by weeks of analysis by the bureau to ultimately decide which tracts would be offered. That would have pushed a sale just a few days before, or beyond, the Jan. 20 inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has opposed drilling in the refuge.
The announcement, which came from the bureau’s Alaska offices, didn’t mention why the timetable had been accelerated. But the Trump administration has made no secret of its desire to sell drilling rights in the refuge while it is still in power.
Environmental groups denounced the last-minute push.
“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,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.
Once the sale is held, the bureau then has to review and approve the leases, a process that typically takes months. But holding the sale on Jan. 6 potentially gives the bureau opportunity to finalize the leases before Inauguration Day. That would make it more difficult for the Biden administration to undo them.
The Arctic refuge is a vast expanse of virtually pristine wilderness, almost untouched by people and home to migrating caribou, polar bears and other wildlife. Of the refuge’s 19 million acres, the lease sales would involve up to 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain of northeast Alaska.
The refuge has long been protected by environmentalists and Congressional Democrats. But in 2017, with Republicans holding the White House and both houses of Congress, the plan to sell oil and gas leases was approved as part of tax legislation.
President Trump has said that opening part of the refuge to oil development was among the most significant of his efforts to expand domestic fossil fuel production.