“I do believe there could be a lease sale by the end of the year.” This was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt earlier today, discussing his agency’s plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, a step environmentalists and conservationists have battled against for five decades.
Even getting to this point required typical Washington backroom sleight of hand. Democrats had blocked any plan to drill in ANWR for years, but the 2017 tax bill included a rider that specifically directed the Department of the Interior to auction off leases for oil and gas development by 2024.
ANWR is a massive place, over 19 million acres. Interior wants to auction leases of a 1.5 million-acre area along the coast called 1002. It is thought that the largest yet-untapped reserves of oil in North America are buried beneath the ground there. Billions of barrels of oil that would be a boon to oil and gas companies, developers, and, potentially, Alaskan communities that would serve the drilling sites.
Since 2017, the Interior Department has been conducting required reviews of potential impacts to wildlife from drilling. Those reviews were submitted last fall. The Interior Department concluded that there would be potential harm to some wildlife, but it could be mitigated with targeted reductions of drilling and shipping activity during important animal migration periods or when calving cycles are underway.
“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 in a statement.
The potential for impact on wildlife—in a federally protected wildlife refuge—aside, many opponents of drilling in ANWR cite the obvious problem of drilling and recovering billions of barrels of oil as the woes of climate change mount. A persistent criticism over the years of development proposals in ANWR have centered on a lack of factoring in climate change. The Interior Department has countered that any oil produced in ANWR would merely replace oil that would have been recovered elsewhere in North America.
Yet Attorneys General across the country signed a letter saying the argument put forth by Interior is baseless.
“BLM’s analysis of direct, indirect, and cumulative greenhouse gas emissions is fatally flawed and the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] arbitrarily fails to quantify the proposed Lease Program’s climate impacts using the social cost of carbon or another metric despite quantifying and evaluating program benefits,” the AGs argue. (You can read that letter, signed by AGs in 15 different states, here.)
Though it is expected auctions will begin as early as the end of this year, it’s possible that any actual drilling wouldn’t occur for at least a decade. Any company that wins an auction bid will be guaranteeing a tie up in litigation for years. Environmental groups will likely challenge the recently released environmental review from Interior as a first step. Even after a lease is successfully signed by an oil company, any drilling they want to do is also subject to a lengthy, and likely bitterly contested, permitting process.
“The Trump administration never stops pushing to drill in the Arctic Refuge—and we will never stop suing them,” said Gina McCarthy, president of the National Resources Defense Council. “America has safeguarded the refuge for decades, and we will not allow the administration to strip that protection away now.
“This is an egregious intrusion into the sacred lands of the Gwich’in and other Indigenous People. It threatens the heart of the largest pristine wildland left in America—the birthing grounds and nursery for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and home to polar bears, musk oxen, migratory birds and other precious wildlife.
“The administration’s reckless, relentless boosting of the oil industry will irrevocably damage this cherished place and compound the global climate crisis. We will not let it stand.”
With oil prices in decline around the world, and questions about future demand circulating, it remains to be seen how interested oil companies even are in drilling unexplored wells. There is some debate about how much oil is actually present in the coastal plain under review to begin with. No studies have been conducted for almost 40 years.
“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.”
To read about the great caribou herds that call ANWR home, and for a fuller look at the wilderness at stake there, check out Rick Bass’s Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-‘in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
For a deeper look at the politics of ANWR, grab Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by Jonathan Waterman.