Trump Administration Finalizes Plan to Open Oil Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge

WASHINGTON — Overturning five decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States, 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.

The decision sets the stage for what is expected to be a fierce legal battle over the fate of this vast, remote Alaska habitat. The Interior Department said it had completed its required reviews and would start preparing to auction off leases to companies interested in drilling inside the refuge’s coastal plain, which is believed to sit atop enough oil to fill billions of barrels but is prized by environmentalists for its pristine landscapes and wildlife.

While the agency has not yet set a date for the first auction, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said on Monday, “I do believe there could be a lease sale by the end of the year.”

Companies that bought leases could begin the process of exploring for oil and gas, although actual production would still require additional permitting and is unlikely to occur for at least a decade, if at all.

Drilling opponents are expected to file lawsuits to try to delay or block the leasing plan. Environmental groups, which have been fighting to block drilling in the refuge since the Reagan administration, have already been arguing that the Interior Department failed to adequately consider the effects that oil and gas development in the region could have on climate change and local wildlife such as caribou and polar bears.

“We will continue to fight this at every turn, in the courts, in Congress and in the corporate boardrooms,” 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.”

The administration’s push to open up the refuge has been backed by Republicans in Congress and lawmakers in Alaska, who have said that drilling could provide much-needed jobs and revenue for the state, where oil production has declined since the 1980s.

“Thousands of Alaskans are employed in our oil industry, and their livelihoods depend on the good-paying jobs created by our state’s reserves,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, in a statement. “Today, we are one step closer to securing a bright future for these Alaskans and their families.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. The fight over drilling centers on 1.5 million acres in the refuge’s coastal plain, known as the 1002 area, which is believed to contain the largest onshore reserves of oil in North America that remain untapped. The Trump administration has sought to allow development as part of its push for more commercial activity on federal lands.

Opponents say that opening the refuge to drilling would be a step backward in an era when the world should be reducing fossil fuel use to address global warming, and at a time when oil demand has plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic. They also say drilling could harm vulnerable wildlife in the area, including polar bears, which are already struggling because of climate change, and migrating herds of caribou that use the coastal plain as a calving area.

For decades, Democrats in Congress blocked proposals to open the refuge. But in 2017 the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress included a section in a tax bill authorizing the Interior Department to establish a plan to sell leases in the coastal plain. Under the law, the agency must conduct at least two lease sales of 400,000 acres each by the end of 2024.

As part of the process, the Department of Interior was required to conduct a review of the potential environmental effects of drilling. The final version of that environmental impact statement was released in September and recommended that oil and gas leasing be allowed throughout the 1002 area.

In its review, the agency said that activities associated with oil and gas development — including new roads and truck traffic, as well as air, noise and water pollution — could potentially harm wildlife. But it suggested that there were ways to blunt the effects, such as limiting the use of heavy equipment for one month of the year during caribou calving season.

“All permitted activities will incorporate required operating procedures and stipulated restrictions based on the best science and technology to ensure that energy development does not come at the expense of the environment,” the Interior Department said.

Environmentalists have criticized the agency’s review as insufficient, saying it was largely based on older research and failed to address several concerns. For instance, critics have noted, the environmental impact statement does not provide an estimate of how many polar bears could potentially be killed or harmed by exploration in the coastal plain.

Drilling opponents have also charged that the Interior Department downplayed the risks of climate change in its review. For instance, the agency estimated that the refuge could produce as many as 10 billion barrels of oil over its lifetime, but argued that the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be fairly minimal, since most of that oil would simply displace oil being produced elsewhere in the country.

In comments submitted to the agency, the attorneys general from 15 states, including New York and Massachusetts, called this displacement theory “completely unsupported.”

While it is unclear whether any of the expected lawsuits will succeed, one possibility is that courts would delay any lease sales and order the Interior Department to revisit its analysis. There is some precedent for this: Last year, a federal judge halted an agency proposal to build a road through an Alaska wildlife refuge to connect King Cove with Cold Bay after agreeing with opponents that officials had not taken environmental concerns seriously enough.

The Trump administration, for its part, has been pushing to approve the leasing plan as quickly as possible. Having drilling rights in the hands of oil companies before the end of the year could make it more difficult to stop development in the refuge should Democrats take the White House.

One big unknown is how many companies might be interested in trying to explore the coastal plain, particularly at a time when oil prices have crashed as a result of the pandemic and companies are idling their rigs in places like Texas and North Dakota. Major oil companies have been fairly quiet about whether they intend to bid on leases. That may indicate a lack of interest, although it could also simply mean that companies are trying not to tip off their competitors.

“There’s no way to accurately predict how much interest there will be until there’s an actual lease sale,” said Kara Moriarty, president and chief executive of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, speaking last year. “Companies simply do not talk about where they intend to bid beforehand.”

One complicating factor is that relatively little is known about exactly how much oil lies under the coastal plain. A New York Times investigation found evidence that the only well ever drilled within the refuge’s boundaries was a disappointment. And the only seismic studies — which can give strong clues as to the location and size of oil and gas reservoirs — were done in the 1980s, when the technology was relatively primitive compared with today.

A plan to conduct a new, more sophisticated seismic study was shelved last winter. On Monday, Mr. Bernhardt said he did not see that as an obstacle. “I think a lot of people will bid for leases without seismic data,” he said.

Even if oil companies do decide to purchase leases, that is still just the first step in a long, uncertain process that could stretch a decade or more. The companies will still need to receive additional permits before they can pump any fossil fuels out of the ground, which in turn means more environmental reviews and potential lawsuits.

“You’ve got a lot of tripwires ahead,” said David Hayes, who served as a deputy interior secretary under President Barack Obama and is now executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law. “Anyone buying a lease is potentially buying years of litigation along with that lease.”