WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is asking oil and gas firms to pick spots where they want to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as it races to open the pristine wilderness to development and lock in drilling rights before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The "call for nominations" to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register allows companies to identify tracts on which to bid during an upcoming lease sale on the refuge's nearly 1.6 million acre coastal plain, a sale that the Interior Department aims to hold before Biden takes the oath of office in January. The move would be a capstone of President Donald Trump's efforts to open up public lands to logging, mining and grazing - something Biden strongly opposes.
A GOP-controlled Congress in 2017 authorized drilling in the refuge, a vast wilderness that is home to tens of thousands of migrating caribou and waterfowl, along with polar bears and Arctic foxes.
"Receiving input from industry on which tracts to make available for leasing is vital in conducting a successful lease sale," Chad Padgett, the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska state director, said in a statement. "This call for nominations brings us one step closer to holding a historic first Coastal Plain lease sale, satisfying the directive of Congress in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and advancing this administration's policy of energy independence."
The administration is pressing ahead with other moves to expand energy development and scale back federal environmental rules over the next few weeks. It aims to finalize a plan to open up the vast majority of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to drilling, as well as adopt a narrower definition of what constitutes critical habitat for endangered species and when companies are liable for killing migratory birds.
At the Energy Department, officials may weaken energy-efficiency requirements for shower heads, as well as washers and dryers before Inauguration Day.
The government also plans to auction off oil and gas rights to more than 383,000 acres of federal land in the Lower 48 in the next two months, according to Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigner for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity.
It is unclear how much appetite there is in the oil and gas industry for drilling in the refuge, given the lack of infrastructure there and the public backlash that could accompany such a move. The area provides habitat for more than 270 species, including the world's remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300,000 snow geese.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, whose people have traveled with the caribou on the refuge for thousands of years, said in a statement: "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. We have been protecting this place forever."
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., decried the move, saying, "This administration is ending as it began, with a desperate push for oil drilling regardless of the human or environmental costs."
But smaller players might be willing to bid on leases, which would be difficult to claw back once they are finalized. Some Alaska Native tribal corporations have already expressed an interest in conducting seismic tests to identify oil reserves on the coastal plain, and they aim to complete that work this winter.
The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, for example, represents Kaktovik, the only Iñupiat village inside the refuge. Kaktovik has surface land rights next to the coastal plain, and the ASRC holds 92,000 acres of subsurface mineral rights.
"We are closely monitoring this public process," said ASRC President Rex Rock Sr., adding that safe and responsible energy exploration on the refuge "will bring well-needed jobs into our communities and into our state."
Tract nominations - including information about the companies that made them - are not made public. "If there is no interest, that will become evident at the lease sale," said Alaska Oil and Gas Association President Kara Moriarty, whose group supports drilling on the coastal plain.
Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview Friday that the administration is operating "under a tight timeline," but he added that many Alaskans support drilling in the refuge and that the 2017 law gives officials a solid legal basis for moving forward.
"Our view is that Congress has acted," Macchiarola said. "Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a long time coming. It's overdue, and it's important to our nation's energy security."
Drilling in the refuge has been an ideological litmus test for more than a generation, and environmentalists have pressed major financial institutions not to back it even as it creeps closer to becoming a reality. Some major banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, have already announced they will not finance projects in the refuge.
On Monday, the Oslo-based energy research firm Rystad Energy published an analysis saying that going forward, "companies will be less willing to drill high-risk wells in environmentally sensitive frontier areas, both for financial and environmental reasons. As a result, the full petroleum potential of areas like the Alaskan Arctic, Foz do Amazonas in Brazil and the Barents Sea may never be unlocked."
The Bureau of Land Management will hold a 30-day comment period once the call for nominations is published Tuesday. Once that period closes, the agency could publish a lease sale notice, which must be published 30 days before an auction takes place. Under that timeline, drilling rights could be sold before Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.
Biden has vowed to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, saying during a New Hampshire town hall in February it would be "a big disaster to do that."
"President-elect Biden has pledged to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," campaign spokesman Matt Hill said Monday. "This move will not deter him from fulfilling his commitment to preserving America's national treasures and the local economies and communities they support."
Several environmental groups are challenging the administration's overall oil and gas leasing program for the refuge in four separate lawsuits. If one of those challenges prevails, it could effectively void the leases.
Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney for the Alaska office of Earthjustice, said in an email that the leases could be in jeopardy for other reasons as well. It often takes several weeks to process bids because the Bureau of Land Management must screen the highest bids for ethical and legal issues before issuing contracts, so if the agency holds an auction but doesn't finalize the leases before Biden's inauguration, "the new administration may be able to avoid issuing them, particularly if it concludes the program or lease sale was unlawfully adopted."
"Even if leases are issued by the Trump administration, the Biden administration could seek to withdraw the leases if it concludes they were unlawfully issued or pose too great a threat to the environment," he said, adding the leaseholders could then argue they deserve financial compensation if the leases are invalidated.
BLM's leasing plans have suffered a series of legal setbacks, including one on Friday, when a federal judge ruled the agency failed to disclose the climate impacts of leasing more than 300,000 acres in Wyoming for oil and gas fracking. The same judge had ruled last year that the agency's initial analysis of the drilling was inadequate.
"Once again, the courts are refusing to accept the Bureau of Land Management's blatant climate denial," WildEarth Guardians staff attorney Daniel Timmons said in a statement. "The law is clear, the federal government can't turn its back on the fact that leasing more public lands for oil and gas is a recipe for more climate destruction."
- - -
The Washington Post's Dino Grandoni and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.