A last-minute decision will shrink the area open to oil leases in Alaska’s Arctic refuge by about 30 percent

The Bureau of Land Management said it removed some tracts from a future oil and gas lease sale in response to public comments.

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Caribou from the Porcupine Herd graze on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain with the Brooks Range in the distance. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Just days before the Trump administration is set to accept the first sealed bids by oil companies, the agency tasked with auctioning off drilling rights within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge cut about 30 percent of the territory from the scheduled lease sale.

The last-minute change to the ANWR lease sale scheduled for Jan. 6 came late Friday in an amended notice of sale issued by the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM said it had removed tracts covering nearly 475,000 acres of the 1.56 million-acre coastal plain from the sale, based on input received during a 30-day public comment period following its initial “call for nominations.”

Out of some 40,000 comments received during that period, the “most substantive” were from Canadian governmental entities, Audubon Society chapters, Gwich’in tribal organizations, the BLM said in its amended sale notice.

“Particularly useful were such tract-differentiated comments related to the core calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which, as distinguished from the polar bear and migratory birds, do not have special protections under federal statutes,” the amended notice of sale said. The decision to withdraw 10 of the tracts from the sale “reflects careful consideration of multiple factors, specifically the environmental information developed as a part of the Environmental Impact Statement process, substantive comments received, industry interest based on the tract nominations from potential bidders, and the resource potential,” particularly in light of the provision of the 2017 federal tax act that mandates ANWR leasing, the amended notice said.

That public comment period on the official ended on Thursday, just one day before the announcement. The BLM’s timing was suspect, said one critic of the leasing plan.

“It took them exactly one day to review 40,000 comments. That seems concerning,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.

Removing about 30 percent of the coastal plain from the lease sale is not sufficient protection, Epstein said.

“The need to protect the whole coastal plain is what’s important,” she said.

Among the comments received by the BLM was a letter from 13 attorney generals in states that have filed their own lawsuit to overturn plans for ANWR oil leasing because of expected transboundary effects on climate change and migratory birds.

The attorneys general criticized the BLM for releasing its sale announcement on Dec. 7, before the 30-day public comment period for the call for nominations had run its course.

“In a reckless rush to hold a lease sale before the inauguration, BLM has cut corners and foreclosed meaningful public input, making the public comment and nomination process a sham,” the Dec. 17 letter from the attorneys general said.

More importantly, no lease sale can be legally held because “it would be relying on a wholly deficient and unlawful environmental review and Record of Decision,” the attorneys general letter said.

Under the BLM’s rules for the ANWR lease sale, bids may be accepted as early as Monday, Dec. 21. They are to be opened on Jan. 6, according to the notice.

The change in the lease plan comes as a federal judge is weighing arguments from environmental and Native groups who are seeking to overturn the Trump administration’s ANWR development plans, as well as arguments from the administration and its allies in favor of oil development in the refuge.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, in a Dec. 16 order, granted the plaintiffs’ requests for an expedited review of a proposed restraining order and preliminary injunction to temporarily block the lease sale scheduled for Jan. 6 and approval of a related seismic survey program. The Interior Department and other defendants have until Dec. 23 to respond to the restraining order motion, and the plaintiffs have until Dec. 30 for rebuttal. Gleason, in her order, said she “will endeavor to enter a ruling on the motion by January 6, 2021.”

Meanwhile, Frank Murkowski, a former Alaska governor and U.S. senator, expressed concern that there will be few or no bids in the lease sale. In an op-ed column in the Anchorage Daily News, Murkowski urged the state to bid on the leases itself.

“If there are other bidders, then the state bids will not be necessary,” he wrote. “But if there are no bidders on the lease sales at all, Alaska will likely never be able to develop our oil and gas potential from ANWR.”