By Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain
- Aug. 17, 2020 NY TIMES
The decision sets up a fierce legal battle over the fate of a vast, remote area that is home to polar bears, caribou and the promise of oil wealth.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Monday finalized its plan to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas development, a move that overturns six decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.
The decision sets the stage for what is expected to be a fierce legal battle over the fate of the refuge’s vast, remote coastal plain, which is believed to sit atop billions of barrels of oil but is also home to polar bears and migrating herds of caribou.
The Interior Department said on Monday that it had completed its required reviews and would begin preparations to auction off drilling leases. “I do believe there could be a lease sale by the end of the year,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said.
Environmentalists, who have battled for decades to keep energy companies out of the refuge, say the Interior Department failed to adequately consider the effects that oil and gas development could have on climate change and wildlife. They and other opponents, including some Alaska Native groups, are expected to file lawsuits to try to block lease sales.
“We will continue to fight this at every turn,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement. “Any oil company that would seek to drill in the Arctic Refuge will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks.”
Though any oil production within the refuge would still be at least a decade in the future, companies that bought leases could begin the process of seeking permits and exploring for oil and gas.
President Trump has long cast an increase in Arctic drilling as integral to his push to expand domestic fossil fuel production on federal lands and secure America’s “energy dominance.” Republicans have prized the refuge as a lucrative source of oil and gas ever since the Reagan administration first recommended drilling in 1987, but efforts to open it up had long been stymied by Democratic lawmakers until 2017, when the G.O.P. used its control of both houses of Congress to pass a bill authorizing lease sales.
“ANWR is a big deal that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get done and nobody could get done,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with Fox & Friends on Monday.
It remains unclear how much interest there will be from energy companies at a time when many countries are trying to wean themselves from fossil fuels and oil prices are crashing amid the coronavirus pandemic. Exploring and drilling in harsh Arctic conditions remains difficult and costly.
Nevertheless, by proceeding with the lease sales, the Trump administration has made the Arctic refuge a potential issue in the presidential campaign, and the region’s fate may ultimately hinge on the election’s outcome. The Democratic nominee for president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., has called for permanent protection of the refuge. However, even if he were to win the White House, it could prove difficult for his administration to overturn existing lease rights once they have been auctioned to energy companies.