WASHINGTON (CN) — As it makes its reluctant exit from the White House, the Trump administration will issue a call to enterprising oil and gas developers eyeballing Alaska: the time is now to secure drilling rights in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The notice from the Department of the Interior, led by Secretary and former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, will offer developers the opportunity to bid on parcels that dot the 1.6-million-acre swath inside of the refuge situated on Alaska’s North Slope.
Once the notice is formally published Tuesday in the Federal Register, a 30-day public comment period begins followed by a lease-sale notice, which must be published 30 days before any auction can be held. This timeline indicates that the Interior is queuing up potential sales just before Inauguration Day when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
Biden has regularly expressed opposition to drilling in and around the refuge. During the primaries this year, he told prospective voters at a town hall in Hudson, New Hampshire, that drilling in the region would be a “total disaster.”
“Completely, totally opposed to it,” Biden said in February. “I’ve been to the Arctic Circle. … I went up in a helicopter to the North Slope and saw what was going on, saw what was happening as the glaciers began to melt. It’s a real gigantic problem. And by the way — no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”
Biden campaigned on advancing carbon-capture technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has vowed to transition away from fossil fuels, and even ban them outright, as his administration pushes for a transition to more clean and renewable energy in the face of mounting climate change concerns.
The former vice president has expressed a similar position on hydraulic fracking, saying he would “gradually move away” from it in pursuit of achieving 100% net-zero emissions in America by 2050.
Under his “Day One” executive actions list, in a section specific to the refuge, the president-elect notes his administration will begin its term by “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, modifying royalties to account for climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.”
“New” is the operative word. As it stands, Biden’s administration would still allow drilling under existing permits, and there are no plans to bar drilling on any privately owned land.
The Arctic National Wildlife refuge was officially opened to drilling in 2017 after the Senate managed to slip legislation sponsored by Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski into that year’s tax-reform bill.
Unable to stop the Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats nonetheless launched a contentious battle in committee to preserve the refuge. One amendment after another failed. It was not until 2019 that the House of Representatives, over much protest from its Republican members, passed H.R. 1146 to repeal leasing in the million-plus-acre plain.
Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, sponsored legislation aimed at repealing the Trump administration’s push to drill in the refuge. It passed the House 225-193 last September but has since languished in what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi often refers to as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s legislative “graveyard.”
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has refused to consider no less than 395 pieces of House-passed legislation since 2017.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to an abundance of flora and fauna like polar bear, Arctic fox and the porcupine caribou. The caribou has for years made a staggering 1,500-mile trek from Canada’s Yukon territory to the ANWR to calve its young. It is considered the longest land-migration route taken by any land mammal on earth.
Many environmentalist groups are opposed to drilling in ANWR, regularly citing the chronic threat of oil spills endemic to development. They have also expressed concern over the threat of persistent and excessive noise from drilling exploits that could disturb the caribou’s migratory patterns and the greater habitat overall.
The final push to sell off land in the refuge before President Donald Trump leaves office in January is part of an executive order issued early on in Trump’s single-term presidency seeking “energy independence.”
On Monday, Interior Secretary Bernhardt commended Trump for taking the latest step toward delivering on the 2017 executive order.
Precisely how rich the reserves of fossil fuels are in the refuge has long been uncertain. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the refuge has just under 9 million barrels of oil, and only 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration pegged American consumption of petroleum in 2019 alone at roughly 20 million barrels per day meaning what the refuge might actually offer would not be worth the risk to the ecosystem there. Six major U.S. banks including JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs have already said they will not fund any new oil and gas development in the refuge.
Developers will also likely run into fierce political opposition from local Native American tribes like the Gwich’in and Iñupiat who have relied on the caribou for millennia to sustain its people.
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred land that sustains not just the Gwich’in and Iñupiat Peoples but is one of the last untouched ecosystems in the world,” Siqiñiq Maupin, director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic said in a statement Monday.
A legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity said the notice was a last gasp from the Trump administration to “lock in climate chaos and the extinction of polar bears and other endangered Arctic species on his way out the door.”
“This is unconscionable,” Kirsten Monsell said. “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can’t be replaced, so we can’t let this lame duck president give it away to Big Oil.”