The Trump administration is making a last-ditch effort to sell oil and gas drilling rights in Alaska’s environmentally fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before it hits its own best-before date January 20—despite the fierce local opposition any new projects will ignite, and some skepticism on whether cash-strapped fossils will be interested in the leases.
“The ‘call for nominations’ to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register allows companies to identify tracts on which to bid during an upcoming lease sale on the refuge’s nearly 1.6-million-acre coastal plain, a sale that the Interior Department aims to hold before [President-elect Joe] Biden takes the oath of office in January,” the Washington Post reports. That’s after a 2017 vote in a Republican-controlled Congress that “authorized drilling in the refuge, a vast wilderness that is home to tens of thousands of migrating caribou and waterfowl, along with polar bears and Arctic foxes.”
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The Post casts the announcement as one of several steps the current White House is taking to cement Trump’s efforts to open public lands to industrial development before the failed former real estate magnate is booted out office in 63 days.
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“It is unclear how much appetite there is in the oil and gas industry for drilling in the refuge, given the lack of infrastructure there and the public backlash that could accompany such a move,” the Post writes. But “smaller players might be willing to bid on leases, which would be difficult to claw back once they are finalized. Some Alaska Native tribal corporations have already expressed an interest in conducting seismic tests to identify oil reserves on the coastal plain, and they aim to complete that work this winter.”
But the Gwich’in Steering Committee in Alaska has been fighting fossil development in the refuge. This week, Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff warned that “any company thinking about participating in this corrupt process should know that they will have to answer to the Gwich’in people and the millions of Americans who stand with us. We have been protecting this place forever.”
Biden is on record opposing drilling in the ANWR. “President-elect Biden has pledged to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” campaign spokesperson Matt Hill told the Post. “This move will not deter him from fulfilling his commitment to preserving America’s national treasures and the local economies and communities they support.”
Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics, and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, told the Post that many Alaskans support drilling in the ANWR, and the 2017 vote cleared the way to make it happen. “Our view is that Congress has acted,” he said. “Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a long time coming. It’s overdue, and it’s important to our nation’s energy security.”
But that position may not stand up to a new analysis by Oslo-based Rystad Energy. The Post has Rystad warning that “companies will be less willing to drill high-risk wells in environmentally sensitive frontier areas, both for financial and environmental reasons. As a result, the full petroleum potential of areas like the Alaskan Arctic, Foz do Amazonas in Brazil, and the Barents Sea may never be unlocked.”