The Trump administration said Monday that it would begin the process of auctioning off leases for oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a potential first-of-its-kind opening of the pristine wilderness that will be challenged in court.
The Interior Department announced the leasing program as President Donald Trump prepared to counter the Democratic National Convention with a weeklong tour of battleground states.
While the government is moving forward with leases, Trump indicated he has not yet decided whether to allow grant leases and allow actual oil drilling if and when the time comes.
"We're looking at different things," Trump said during an hourlong interview on "Fox & Friends." "We may or may not do it."
Leases could be auctioned off "right around the end of the year,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told The Wall Street Journal in an interview.
Bernhardt signed the Record of Decision, which will determine where oil and gas leasing will take place in the refuge’s coastal plain, a 1.56-million-acre swath of land on Alaska’s north shore with the Beaufort Sea that's home to polar bears and other wildlife.
“Congress directed us to hold lease sales in the ANWR Coastal Plain, and we have taken a significant step in meeting our obligations by determining where and under what conditions the oil and gas development program will occur,” Bernhardt said in a statement.
Congress approved the program in 2017, and the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management in December 2018 concluded drilling could be done within the coastal plain area without harming wildlife.
Environmental groups called the leasing program an election-year stunt that will be challenged in court.
“The Trump administration’s so-called review process for their shameless sell-off of the Arctic Refuge has been a sham from the start. We’ll see them in court,” said Lena Moffitt of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.
“Our climate is in crisis, oil prices have cratered, and major banks are pulling out of Arctic financing right and left,” said Adam Kolton, executive director at Alaska Wilderness League. “And yet the Trump administration continues its race to liquidate our nation’s last great wilderness, putting at risk the indigenous peoples and iconic wildlife that depend on it.”
“Today’s announcement marks a milestone in Alaska’s 40-year journey to responsibly develop our state and our nation’s new energy frontier,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said.
The Republican governor called Monday’s decision “a definitive step in the right direction to developing this area’s energy potential,” which he estimated at 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil reserves.