Policy

As House passes Arctic drilling ban, Interior goes the other way

Trump administration moves to open part of sensitive area to drilling, a win for Alaska Republicans

A pair of moose are seen near the Sheenjek River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. (Alexis Bonogofsky/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Interior Department and the House are moving in different directions on Arctic drilling.

Hours after the House voted 225-193 to block oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the agency said it was moving to open a portion of the area to drilling.

[House takes aim at Trump’s drilling plan with three bills]

The Bureau of Land Management released what it said was its final environmental impact statement for the oil-and-gas leasing program for a 1.5-million-acre portion of ANWR known as Area 1002. In all, ANWR takes up 19.6 million acres in northeastern Alaska, making it the largest wildlife refuge in the country.

Expanding petroleum production in the ecologically sensitive region has been a goal of the state’s delegation for decades, and would mark a significant triumph for Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“I’m hopeful we can now move to a lease sale in the very near future, just as Congress intended, so that we can continue to strengthen our economy, our energy security, and our long-term prosperity,” Murkowski said in a statement after BLM announced its plans.

“Our goal is to have a lease sale by the end of the year,” Chad Padgett, BLM’s state director for Alaska, told reporters Thursday afternoon. He said BLM’s environmental assessment extends to the leasing phase. “We’ve analyzed just the lease sale, not the project specific,” he said, adding that a final decision on opening the area is expected within 30 days.

[Trump admin. pans Democrats’ plan to protect areas in Alaska and offshore]

Padgett said Interior’s announcement of the environmental impact statement was not in response to the House vote Thursday morning. “We’re rolling along as normal with what the law says, rather than focusing on the House,” he said.

The Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to consider any such ANWR drilling ban.

Exposing some of ANWR to drilling was a provision of the tax law President Donald Trump signed in December 2017.

In its environmental impact statement, the Interior Department identified three drilling plans — Alternatives B, C and D — and picked plan B as its preference.

The agency said air pollution emissions would “likely be the highest” under plan B because more oil and gas facilities would be included. Aircraft emissions under that scenario would also likely be the greatest, it said in its report.

Environmental groups criticized the announcement as potentially illegal and accused the administration of rushing its review.

“Oil companies now seeking to exploit this national treasure should think twice,” Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “The House vote signals massive opposition and public backlash against the rush to drill.”

Profitably drilling for oil in the Arctic in untapped regions requires per-barrel prices to be far higher than they are today, according to industry analysts.

According to Carbon Tracker, a financial and climate research firm, $545 billion in oil projects in the U.S. is exposed to so-called “transition risk” — what it will take to move away from a fossil fuel-centered economy and comply with international climate goals to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels.

“New oil sands investments will be uneconomic, and only a minority of potential new Arctic and extra heavy oil investment will go ahead,” the group said in a March 2018 report.

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