The Trump Administrations’ latest push will allow oil and gas companies to select which parts of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge they’re interested in for drilling. This is the latest of the administration’s rollbacks involving environmental rollbacks. The call for nominations launches a 30-day commitment period and will allow the Bureau of Land Management to move forward with lease sales which must be announced 30 days in advance.
After four decades of protection, the Republican-led Congress approved legislation that opened up part of the refuge for oil development in 2017. The legislation called for two lease sales in the coastal section of the refuge within seven years, the first to be held by the end of 2021.
With inauguration day two months away, this rush to open the refuge for drilling has understandably received backlash from conservation groups. The Arctic refuge’s coastal plain is 1.6 million acres, representing eight percent of the total refuge. It is a habitat for caribou, polar bears, and migratory birds. This land is also believed to hold billions of barrels of untapped oil.
Senior staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska, Brook Brisson told NPR “This timeline indicates that they’re trying to cram this through in a way that would cut out consideration for public concern.” ‘Trustees for Alaska’ is one of several groups, including 15 states that have filed lawsuits this year aimed at stopping drilling plans for the artic refuge.
Alaskan Natives are split on the issue; with some seeing the opportunity for profit, while others share concern for the wildlife. The Gwich’in culture is particularly concerned as their diet revolves around migrating caribou.
The American Petroleum Institute is supporting the call for nominations, saying the industry will work with wildlife organizations and local communities to “safely and responsibly develop these important resources.”
It is unclear how much corporate interest in drilling there will be due to how expensive it is to drill in such remote areas.
Other challenges include the currently-low oil prices, the coming change in administration, and the risk of more litigation over environmental concerns. If drilling leases are finalized before Vice President Biden takes office they could be difficult to revoke. Biden could still face the federal law that then would mandate a drilling lease sale, but the incoming administration could put restrictions in place.