Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that it would begin the formal process of selling leases to oil companies for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
This could mean a potential sale of leases just before January 20, 2021, Inauguration Day, leaving the Biden administration to try to reverse them after the fact.
What is Happening?
- The federal Register posted a “call for nominations” from the Bureau of Land Management relating to lease sales in 1.5 million acres of the refuge along the Arctic Ocean coastline. This is essentially a request to oil companies to specify which areas of land they would be interested in exploring and possibly drilling in.
- The earlier sales could occur on or about January 17. The call for nominations will allow for comments until December 17.
- Only one exploratory well has ever been drilled in the refuge, but a New York Times investigation found the results to be disappointing.
- The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is estimated to sit above billions of barrels of oil, but the 19 million acre landscape is home to polar bears, waterfowl, migrating caribou and Arctic foxes. Overall, the refuge is home to over 270 species, including the world’s remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300 000 snow geese.
- If sales proceed, it is unclear how much interest drilling in the refuge would attract from oil companies. Arctic oil production is also difficult and costly and companies may fear the potential impact to their reputations by drilling in such a pristine place.
Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, says, “This lease sale in the Arctic refuge is one more box the Trump administration is trying to check off for its oil industry allies. 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.
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Because of the timing, any sales would be subject to review by agencies in the Biden administration, a process that could take a month or more. It could refuse to issue the leases, perhaps by claiming that the scientific underpinnings of the plan to allow drilling were flawed, according to the New York Times.
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.