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, the Trump administration on Monday announced that it would begin the formal process of selling leases to oil companies.
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 stop the them after the fact.
“The Trump administration is trying a ‘Hail Mary’ pass,” said Jenny Rowland-Shea, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal group in Washington. “They know that what they’ve put out there is rushed and legally dubious.”
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 call for nominations will allow 30 days for comments, after which the bureau, part of the Interior Department, could issue a final notice of sales to occur as soon as 30 days later. That means the sales could be held a few days before Inauguration Day.
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 offer all of the acreage and issue the notice immediately.
There was no immediate response to emailed requests for comment from the Interior Department or the Bureau of Land Management office in Alaska.
Any sales would then 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.
At stake is the future of the refuge, one of the most remote and pristine parts of the United States and home to polar bears and migrating caribou, among other wildlife. 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 oil would be produced from there, and by then the drive to wean the world from fossil fuels may have lessened the 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 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.
Those groups also criticized the decision to put forward the call for nominations.
“This lease sale is one more box the Trump administration is trying to check off for its oil industry allies before vacating the White House in January,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement. “It is disappointing that this administration until the very end has maintained such low regard for American’s public lands, or the wildlife and Indigenous communities that depend on them.”
Separately, the Bureau of Land Management has revived a plan for a seismic survey in the coastal plain to better assess the petroleum reserves there. The survey has 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, heavy survey trucks could be rolling across part of the coastal plain by the end of this year.
Environmental groups have objected to the plan for a survey, which they say will permanently harm the delicate tundra and could disturb, injure or kill denning polar bears. But even if the survey proceeds, it will not be finished until well after the sales take place.