Interior pushes ahead on drilling in Alaska refuge, but hurdles await

Indigenous and environmental groups called the move dangerous

Demonstrators gather in Washington in 2017 to oppose oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Demonstrators gather in Washington in 2017 to oppose oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 3, 2020 at 4:14pm

The Bureau of Land Management said Thursday it was pushing ahead to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas drilling, meeting a provision of the 2017 tax law, a decision environmental and indigenous groups condemned as dangerous for the climate and offensive to local tradition.

BLM said details about the lease sale, including an official notice, will be published Monday and the auction to drill in the ecologically sensitive region will occur via livestream on Jan. 6. 

The announcement follows a spate of deregulatory moves by the Trump administration in Alaska, including a step in October to lift logging protections on the majority of the nearly 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, the approval of ConocoPhillips to build three drill sites in the Arctic tundra and a separate decision from Interior to allow seismic tests in ANWR. Technicians conduct seismic surveys — they blast loud sounds in the direction of potential petroleum deposits — to scout for oil.

Through the tax law President Donald Trump signed in 2017, Congress directed the Interior Department, the parent agency of BLM, to hold at least two lease auctions of 400,000 acres apiece in a region of the refuge known as the “coastal plain” — a stretch of land in northeast Alaska along the Arctic Ocean.

The territory is home to migratory caribou herds, polar bears, snow geese, waterfowl and endangered whales.

More hurdles

Drilling in ANWR is not a done deal. The incoming Biden administration has pledged to protect the refuge, environmental groups said they are preparing lawsuits, bids for the leases must be reviewed and companies have to apply for and obtain other permits before drilling can begin.

Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, said in an interview the Biden administration could block approval to drill. After a company wins a lease sale there are still other legal obligations for it to meet, she said, adding that government agencies will continue to scrutinize its bid.

[Interior OKs Tongass logging amid Alaska timber, petroleum push]

"It can take a few weeks to do all the evaluations," Monsell said. Interior is moving to offer the lease before the public comment period on the proposal has closed, and public comments had to be submitted by mail, a more opaque process than the standard online process federal agencies generally use, she said. "That is perhaps a reason that they're trying to rush and ram this through."

Once in office, the Biden administration can review permits granted to drill in ANWR and deny them, according to Monsell. "It can also revoke the lease sales if, for example, it found the leases are against the public interest or would cause too much environmental harm,” she said.

Pat Lavin, Alaska policy adviser with the Defenders of Wildlife, summarized environmental groups’ stance succinctly: “Drilling won't happen on Defenders' watch.”

The official notice of the sale coming Monday lands nearly on the 60th anniversary of the creation of ANWR. 

President Dwight Eisenhower first designated the area for federal protection on December 6, 1960.

Reluctant banks

Bank of America said this week it would not finance oil and gas projects in ANWR, following moves over the spring from other banking giants Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup that said they would not lend money for projects tied to the refuge.

Representatives of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas lobbying group, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, did not respond immediately to requests for comment. All have been supportive of drilling in the Alaskan Arctic.

Alaskans have been divided on the issue of drilling in the refuge.

“Oil and gas from the Coastal Plain is an important resource for meeting our Nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities,” Chad Padgett, Alaska state director for BLM, said in a statement. “The law makes oil and gas development one of the purposes of the refuge, clearly directing the Secretary, acting through the Bureau of Land Management, to carry out a competitive leasing program for the potentially energy-rich Coastal Plain," Padgett said in a reference to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

For generations the Gwich'in, an Indigenous group in Alaska, have bound their existence to the Porcupine caribou herd, following and hunting the animals as they migrate. Drilling could upend that bond, placing animals and humans at risk in the region, a swath of land the Gwich’in call the “sacred place where life begins.”

The region is also considered sacred to the Iñupiat people, another Native group.

“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,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We will continue to protect this place forever.”

Siqiñiq Maupin, director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, said the area is one of the last “untouched ecosystems” worldwide.

“The global consciousness is shifting into an equitable and just transition to a sustainable economy, yet the United States continues to ignore science and human rights,” Maupin said. “Indigenous Peoples have passed down stories for generations of the climate crisis we are currently facing.”