The Trump administration will sell off rights to drill for oil in Alaska’s pristine and fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just days ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The 11th-hour lease sale is slated for Jan. 6, the Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday. That’s exactly two weeks before Biden, who has pledged to protect the vast wilderness area, assumes office.
“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, the BLM’s Alaska state director, said in a statement.
But several analyses have found that the supposed economic benefits the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have touted in their push to transform the refuge’s 1.56 million-acre coastal plain into an oil field are unattainable. The Interior Department has said that leases would generate an estimated $1.8 billion in federal revenue over a decade, while outside organizations have pegged the figure at between $37.5 million and $145.5 million.
The refuge, often described as “America’s Serengeti,” covers more than 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. The region is home to polar bears, caribou, moose and hundreds of species of migratory birds. The refuge’s coastal plain, known as the “1002 Area,” has long been a battleground for energy companies and conservationists.
Kristen Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, slammed the announcement, calling President Donald Trump’s effort to rush through leases “incredibly reckless” and illegal.
“Trump isn’t even pretending to care what the public thinks about giving the Arctic Refuge to Big Oil,” she said. “We’re counting on the Biden administration and the courts to protect polar bears and our climate where Trump wouldn’t.”
Biden has committed to doing just that.
“As President, Biden will take immediate steps to reverse the Trump administration’s assaults on America’s natural treasures, including by reversing Trump’s attacks on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bears Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante,” reads Biden’s comprehensive plan for tribal nations, which his campaign released in October.
The Indigenous Gwich’in people of northern Alaska and Canada call the refuge “the sacred place where life begins” and for thousands of years have relied on the caribou herds that roam the area as a primary food source.
In his statement, Padgett noted that the Interior Department is acting on Congress’ directive. The GOP tax law passed in late 2017 included a provision, championed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), requiring the department to approve at least two lease sales, each covering no less than 400,000 acres.
But the administration itself has made opening the Arctic refuge to fossil fuel development a top priority, and Trump hasn’t hesitated to take credit. During a speech in 2018, the president said that he wasn’t interested in the issue until a friend called and informed him that Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to give oil producers access to the refuge for decades.
“After that, I said, ‘Oh, make sure that’s in the [tax] bill,’” Trump said.
In the rush to greenlight drilling, top Interior Department officials have scrubbed and ignored career scientists’ work in an effort to downplay the potential environmental impacts, as investigative journalist Adam Federman reported in Politico last year, citing leaked documents.
“The Trump Administration is hell-bent on selling off the Arctic Refuge on its way out the door, rules and laws be damned,” Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said on Thursday. “But they have made such a mess of the leasing process — suppressing science, cutting corners, ignoring the rights and voices of the Gwich’in people — that this whole boondoggle can and should be tossed in the trash by the courts or the next Administration.”
On Tuesday, Bank of America joined other major U.S. and international banks in committing not to finance oil and gas drilling in the refuge.