The Trump administration approved an oil and gas leasing program within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a 1.56-million-acre swath of land on Alaska’s north shore along the Beaufort Sea.
The Department of the Interior on Aug. 17 approved the program, with Secretary David Bernhardt signing the Record of Decision, which will determine where oil and gas leasing will take place in a section of the coastal plain known as the “1002 area.”
“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.
Lawmakers approved the program in 2017, and the department’s Bureau of Land Management in December 2018 concluded that drilling could be conducted within the coastal plain area without harming wildlife.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) carried out a multi-year resource and economic assessment of the area around two decades ago and found that the total quantity of technically recoverable oil in the area, excluding State and Native areas, was between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels.
“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 the decision “a definitive step in the right direction to developing this area’s energy potential.”
Environmental groups reacted with criticism and vowed to sue.
“This is likely a bad Record of Decision resulting from a fundamentally flawed Final Environmental Impact Statement that offered only alternatives that would result in destructive, widespread development on the sacred calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The Gwich’in and Iñupiat people who depend on the herd for their survival—and all Americans—deserve better,” Karlin Itchoak, Alaska state director of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.
“This is another outrageous move by an administration that ignores science and shortcuts the public process in an irresponsible rush to help oil companies secure leases on the coastal plain before the 2020 presidential election,” Itchoak said. “This fight is not over. We remain committed to keeping drill rigs out of one of the wildest, most beautiful places in America.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Interior Department’s approval of the drilling program would pave the way for oil and gas leases to be auctioned by the end of this year.
The question of whether to drill for oil in the ANWR has been an ongoing political controversy for decades, with Republicans seeking repeatedly to allow drilling, while Democrats have managed to block those efforts over fears of harm to the ecosystem.
That deadlock was finally broken in 2017, when Republicans, led by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairman of the Energy Committee, pushed for ANWR drilling to be included in the tax cut bill.
“This is a capstone moment in our decades-long push to allow for the responsible development of a small part of Alaska’s 1002 Area,” Murkowski said on Aug. 17. “New opportunity in the 1002 Area is needed both now, as Alaskans navigate incredibly challenging times, and well into the future as we seek a lasting economic foundation for our state.”
“President Trump’s leadership brought more than three decades of inaction to an end,” Bernhardt said in his statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.