The first leases to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be sold by the end of 2020, Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt said as his agency formally announced its leasing program on Monday.
Laying out the terms of a leasing program is one of the last steps in a controversial plan to tap into the gas and oil resources in the region that has been fought over for decades. It's backed by Republicans and opposed by environmental groups and some members of Alaska's Indigenous communities.
The move applies to some 1.57 million acres of the refuge's coastal plain.
"I do believe there certainly could be a lease sale by the end of the year," Bernhardt said, according to NPR member station Alaska Public Media.
The station reported, "Once drilling rights are sold, it will be harder for a future president to reverse course."
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups say oil operations in the federally protected lands threaten the pristine landscape, which sustains caribou, polar bears, migratory birds and other animals.
"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 Natural Resources Defense Council. "America has safeguarded the refuge for decades, and we will not allow the administration to strip that protection away now."
Alaska's congressional delegation — Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans — celebrated the news, thanking President Trump and Bernhardt for what they said will be a boost for their state's economy.
"This is a capstone moment in our decades-long push to allow for the responsible development" of oil resources in the refuge, Murkowski said.
"As we approach the day where the first drilling rigs arrive and crude starts flowing, I will continue working with great excitement to ensure that Alaska is front and center as we blaze the trail toward American energy dominance," Young said.
But the Wilderness Society's Alaska state director, Karlin Itchoak, disagreed:
"This is another outrageous move by an administration that ignores science and shortcuts the public process," he said, "in an irresponsible rush to help oil companies secure leases on the coastal plain before the 2020 presidential election."
The coastal plain represents about 8% of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 19.3 million acres. The U.S. government made it legal to drill there in December 2017 when the Republican-led Congress added the stipulation to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
"Interior must conduct at least two lease sales within 10 years," the 2017 law states. It adds, "Each lease sale must contain: (1) at least 400,000 acres, and (2) areas that have the highest potential for the discovery of hydrocarbons."
The law allows oil and gas companies to build production and support facilities on up to 2,000 acres of the coastal plain as part of their operations.
It's not clear how much demand there will be for Arctic leases. The oil industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. It's also not clear exactly how much oil is in the refuge, and a growing list of investors have responded to environmental concerns and said they won't fund oil and gas projects there.