The Trump administration said Thursday that it would sell oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in early January, further accelerating its last-ditch effort to allow drilling there.
The Bureau of Land Management said the sale would take place on Jan. 6, following the publication next Monday of a notice of sale in the Federal Register. That notice requires a 30-day comment period before a sale can occur.
The announcement of a sale date came just 16 days after the bureau released a “call for nominations,” which allowed oil companies and others to detail which tracts of land in the refuge were of interest for drilling.
Normally, a call for nominations allows at least 30 days for such responses, followed by weeks of analysis by the bureau to ultimately decide which tracts will be offered. That time frame would have pushed a sale to just a few days before, or beyond, the Jan. 20 inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has opposed drilling in the refuge.
The announcement, which came from the bureau’s Alaska offices, did not mention why the timetable had been accelerated. But the Trump administration has made no secret of its desire to sell drilling rights in the refuge before leaving office.
Environmental groups denounced the last-minute push.
“This is a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to give one last handout to the fossil fuel industry on his way out the door, at the expense of our public lands and our climate,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.
Once the sale is held, the bureau has to review and approve the leases, a process that typically takes months. But holding the sale on Jan. 6 potentially gives the bureau opportunity to finalize the leases before Inauguration Day. That would make it more difficult for the Biden administration to undo them.
Environmental groups said they expected Mr. Biden to do just that.
“President Biden ran on, and was elected on, the most aggressive pro-climate platform of any successful candidate in history and he made protecting the Arctic refuge a day one priority,” Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “We will need him to use all the tools at his disposal to stop the industrialization of this iconic national treasure.”
The plan to sell leases is also the subject of four lawsuits filed by environmental organizations, some Alaska Native groups and, in one case, a coalition of 15 states. The lawsuits contend that the Trump administration took shortcuts in the leasing process and that an environmental review was deeply flawed.
The Arctic refuge is a vast expanse of virtually pristine wilderness, almost untouched by people and home to migrating caribou, polar bears and other wildlife. Of the refuge’s 19 million acres, the lease sales would involve up to 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain of northeast Alaska. The environmental review, which was finalized earlier this year, recommended that almost all of the 1.5 million acres be offered for sale
The refuge has long been protected by environmentalists and Congressional Democrats. But in 2017, with Republicans holding the White House and both houses of Congress, the plan to sell oil and gas leases in the coastal plain was approved as part of tax legislation.
President Trump has said that opening part of the refuge to oil development was among the most significant of his efforts to expand domestic fossil fuel production.
The coastal plain is believed to overlie one of the last remaining significant petroleum reserves in the United States, and could potentially yield billions of barrels of oil. But that assessment is decades old and relies largely on studies that used now-outdated technology to detect petroleum deposits underground.
One exploratory well was drilled in the refuge in the 1980s, and a New York Times investigation found that the results were disappointing.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, has praised the Trump administration’s efforts to open the refuge to drilling, saying it would provide jobs and add to Alaska’s revenue, which has been suffering as oil production on the North Slope has declined over the years. More recently, oil prices have sharply declined during the pandemic. Most of the state’s political leaders support drilling in the refuge as well.
Yet it is not clear how much interest the sale will attract from oil companies. Drilling in the Arctic is costly, making it harder to achieve a good return on investment, especially compared with drilling in places in the Lower 48 states, like Texas, which have less onerous conditions.
Moreover, purchasing the leases would be only the beginning of the process. Most experts say it would be at least a decade or longer before any oil or gas was extracted from the refuge. By then, the drive to reduce worldwide fossil fuel use may mean there is little or no market for the oil.
Companies may also decide that pursuing oil in such a pristine area, one that is prized by environmentalists around the country and by some Alaska Native groups, is not worth the potential effect on their reputations. Many major banks have said they will not lend money to companies for drilling in the refuge.
In the 2017 legislation, the lease sale plan was billed as a means for raising revenue for the federal treasury. The Trump administration originally estimated a $1.8 billion windfall for the government over a decade. The Congressional Budget Office later offered a lower estimate of $1.1 billion.
But independent analyses, including one by The New York Times, found that even that revised amount was likely overly optimistic. Based on similar sales in Alaska over the past several decades, the analyses found potential revenue over the next decade would likely be in the range of tens of millions of dollars