For decades the refuge, most of it virtually untouched wilderness, had remained off limits to oil development. But in 2017, a Republican-controlled Congress approved a plan to sell leases in 1.5 million acres along the Arctic coast, an area that is thought to overlie billions of barrels of oil.
Following final approval of the environmental impact statement last summer, plans for the sale moved ahead. Last month, the Bureau of Land Management removed about 500,000 acres from the sale out of concerns, it said, about disrupting caribou and other wildlife. That left about a million acres up for bid.
Environmental groups that have sued the Interior Department over the leasing plan had sought to halt the sale, but their motion for a preliminary injunction was denied by a federal judge on Tuesday. The lawsuit, and others seeking to end the leasing program, are still in progress, however.
In her ruling, Judge Sarah L. Gleason of Federal District Court in Anchorage sided with government lawyers who argued that the sale of leases would not of itself result in “imminent irreparable harm,” as the groups had claimed, since any on-the-ground activities in the refuge would have to be approved later.
It had been unclear whether oil companies had much interest in drilling for oil in the refuge, given the costs of operating in hostile Arctic conditions and the risk to their reputations that would come from drilling in such a pristine place. In response to pressure from environmental groups and some Alaska Native groups opposed to drilling, major U.S. banks had announced they would not finance oil development in the refuge.
The ruling by Judge Gleason on Tuesday also denied the environmental groups’ request to block a proposed seismic survey in the coastal plain, saying in effect that the issue was moot because the Bureau of Land Management has yet to make a decision on the project.
An Alaska Native group, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, submitted a proposal in September for the survey, in which heavy trucks would cross the frozen, snow-covered tundra and use acoustic signals to determine the location and size of any oil and gas deposits. They proposed that the survey begin later this month.