Raising widespread criticism from environmental groups, the Trump administration has officially approved a plan to open an Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska for oil and natural gas drilling. The idea has been in the works since 2017, with the first leases to drill expected to be granted by the end of the year.
The news was confirmed to the Wall Street Journal by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose department will be in charge of the auctions. The fact that they will take place this year might make it difficult for Democrats to reverse the decision if presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the election in November.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the area to be auctioned off, is considered a wellspring for wildlife, housing polar bears, foxes, and migratory birds, among many other species. Of the 19 million acres of the refuge, 1.6 million will be available to be leased to fossil fuel companies.
Although many of them have long wanted access to the ANWR, it remains to be seen how many of them are willing to take a risk on an unexplored stretch of land where little data on its oil and gas resources is available. Bernhardt expects strong interest despite the lack of such vital data.
Companies have actually been leaving Alaska due to the high costs of drilling and shipping the oil and gas compared to the cheaper options in other states that already have pipelines installed. British oil giant BP was the last one to leave the area, selling its operations to Hilcorp.
Environmental groups reacted with anger to the news, and are likely to sue to stop the move. Once the drilling rights are allocated, it will be harder for a future president to reverse course, they argued. Oil operations in the area would severely threaten the pristine landscape, they added.
"This plan will not only harm caribou, polar bears, and other wildlife, it is foolish in the face of rapidly advancing climate change," said, Jennifer Rokala the Executive Director of the Centre for Western Priorities in a statement.
"Oil companies will have to harden their infrastructure to withstand melting permafrost and rising seas, leading to an even greater impact."
Alaska's congressional delegation, including Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Don Young, celebrated the news, thanking President Trump and Bernhardt for what they said will be a boost for their state's economy. It’s a "capstone moment," Murkowski said, in their decades-long push for "responsible" oil extraction in the area.
A significant number of major global banks such as JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs have already said they will not provide financing for drilling in the area. Environmental activists have also said that the reputational risks to companies operating in the ANWR would be severe.
The US government authorized drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge in December 2017 when Congress added a stipulation to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The law states that the Interior Department has to make "at least two lease sales" within 10 years, with each lease containing "at least 400,000 acres."