(CN) — The Trump administration announced Thursday it was opening oil and gas lease allotments on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the potential to despoil some of the most pristine natural environment on Earth.
The sale of the leases is slated for Jan. 6 and could cap off one of the most embittered environmental battles spanning decades. Environmentalists continue to insist the area should be left for roving herds of caribou, polar bears and other rare wildlife.
The Trump administration has made it a priority to open up the land to oil and gas development.
“Congress directed us to hold lease sales in the ANWR Coastal Plain, and we have taken a significant step in announcing the first sale in advance of the December 2021 deadline set by law,” stated BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett. “Oil and gas from the Coastal Plain is an important resource for meeting our nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities.”
The Republican-controlled Congress did vote in 2017 to open up the coastal plain to development, but there are questions about whether the Trump administration’s rush to sell the leases will withstand all-but-certain legal challenges.
A coalition of conservation and tribal groups have already filed suit against the environmental analysis portion of the plan, but the Trump administration has cut short a 30-day window for public comment to be able to schedule the sale of leases for a date two weeks out from President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Green groups are threatening a full-court press against both the administration and companies who bid on the allotments.
“Today we put the oil industry on notice,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife in a Thursday statement. “Any oil companies that bid on lease sales for the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should brace themselves for an uphill legal battle fraught with high costs and reputational risks.”
Oil and gas companies have been loath to take the Trump administration up on previous oil and gas leases that generated controversy. In California, the BLM opened up dozens of oil and gas leases up and down the state, but have seen little activity as a result.
Part of it is reputational, as Clark noted, but another part is pure economics.
The price of oil is such that there isn’t a large incentive to begin new drilling operations at present. Some of those who watch the energy sector closely believe the Biden administration’s approach to restricting drilling will be a boon for oil and gas companies as there is currently too much of the commodity on the market, driving down prices and profits.
Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, a longtime proponent of the project, noted on Nov. 16 when the public comment period opened that the project faced “headwinds from global economic conditions.”
Many Alaskans, including Matthew Rexford, the tribal administrator of Katovik, the only village inside the coastal plain, say the economic benefits of the project outweigh any environmental costs.
“All impacts from exploration and development can be mitigated to preserve the area,” Rexford told National Public Radio on Thursday.
Rexford has testified before Congress numerous times and said they have seen oil and gas development done in a responsible way throughout the state, arguing the impact to wildlife like polar bears would be minimal.
“The Arctic Iñupiat will not become conservation refugees,” Rexford said while appearing before Congress during hearings in 2017. “We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence and no hope for the future of our people.”
But Rexford and his allies face an uphill battle.
An array of banks, including the six largest in the United States, have made pledges not to finance projects in the wildlife refuge.
The coastal plain, known as the 1002 area, encompasses about 1.6 million acres, which represents about 8% of the total land in the refuge. Geologists predict it contains billions of barrels of oil.
Whether that oil is ever extracted is an open question, as the Biden administration has made its intention to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
Even if the Trump administration were to clear legal hurdles and hold the sale on Jan. 6 as planned, the incoming Biden administration could make obtaining a permit so onerous and time-consuming as to be cost-prohibitive.
For now, interested parties will watch the courts to see if groups file an injunction seeking to prevent the Jan. 6 sale and if the sale goes ahead, whether there will be buyers.