Trump administration plans to sell Arctic refuge oil leases in early January

The Bureau of Land Management said Thursday it aims to hold a sale on Jan. 6, just days before President-elect Biden's nomination.

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The Canning River flows through the coastal plain in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Katrina Liebich / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Trump administration is pushing forward with a controversial plan to sell oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the final days of Trump’s presidency.

The federal Bureau of Land Management said in a press release Thursday that it plans to publish a notice of the sale on Monday, Dec. 7, with a lease sale planned for Jan. 6, just days before President-elect Joe Biden — who opposes drilling in the refuge — is to be inaugurated.

Oil and gas from the wildlife refuge “is an important resource for meeting our Nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities,” the agency’s Alaska State Director Chad Padgett said in the release.

Last month, the Trump administration asked oil companies to nominate parcels in the refuge’s coastal plain for inclusion in a lease sale.

Opening the refuge to oil and gas drilling has long been a goal of Alaska’s Congressional delegation and other political leaders in the state, who have welcomed the Trump administration’s push to do so.

But environmental groups and some Alaska Native organizations have strongly opposed such efforts, in part because of potential impacts to the Porcupine caribou herd, whose spring calving grounds are in the refuge’s coastal plain.

Opponents Thursday called for action to block the sale in court or quickly reverse it after President-elect Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

“The Trump Administration is hell bent on selling off the Arctic Refuge on its way out the door, rules and laws be damned,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “But they have made such a mess of the leasing process — suppressing science, cutting corners, ignoring the rights and voices of the Gwich’in people — that this whole boondoggle can and should be tossed in the trash by the courts or the next Administration.”

One potential Interior Secretary nominee has already said a roll-back of any movement toward Arctic refuge drilling would be a priority for a Biden administration “on Day One.”

Meanwhile, there are four lawsuits already pending in U.S. District Court in Anchorage that seek to invalidate the record of decision that authorizes the lease sale and the environmental impact statement that led to the record. Plaintiffs include the Gwich’in Steering Committee, individual Gwich’in tribal governments in Alaska, environmental groups and several Lower 48 states that argue oil development in ANWR would have negative effects far beyond Alaska, exacerbating climate change and harming migratory birds.

Opponents also sought to discourage bids on the sale by promising further legal battles.

“Today we put the oil industry on notice. Any oil companies that bid on lease sales for the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should brace themselves for an uphill legal battle fraught with high costs and reputational risks,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife (and a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). “Defenders will not stand by as the government despoils lands sacred to Indigenous people, wipes out one of the most imperiled polar bear populations in the U.S. and industrializes the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system.”

In addition to opposition from an incoming Biden administration, and multiple lawsuits seeking to halt it, oil companies could struggle to find financing.

A growing number of major banks have vowed to not to invest in such development. On Monday, Bank of America announced a policy that bars financing for any oil development in the Arctic, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. With Bank of America joining the long list, all major U.S. banks are on now record with policies opposing ANWR financing.

The Trump administration has separately sought to counter that trend with a new proposed rule from the Office of the Comptroller of Currency. But it’s likely that that rule, should it take effect, would also be reversed by an incoming Biden administration.

Yereth Rosen, Melody Schreiber and Krestia DeGeorge contributed to this story.