In last-minute move, Trump administration shrinks ANWR oil lease sale by almost a third

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

The federal Bureau of Land Management has axed nearly 475,000 acres of land from its upcoming oil and gas lease sale in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

BLM’s announcement Friday evening shrunk the size of the drilling-rights auction by about 30% — just three days before the agency started accepting bids in the first-ever lease sale in the refuge scheduled for Jan. 6. 

RELATED: Trump administration announces ANWR lease sale for early January

The 10 tracts removed from the sale are in the southeastern corner of the coastal plain.

A map shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain broken into numbered tracts, with some of them shaded gray in the southeast corner to show which pieces of land have been removed from the upcoming lease sale.
A map of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain shows the tracts of land that will be included in an oil and gas lease sale on Jan. 6. The Bureau of Land Management has removed the numbered tracts shaded gray. (Screenshot BLM document)

In a document released Friday, BLM said it decided to remove the land from the sale based on environmental information, industry interest, resource potential and feedback it received during a recent comment period that ended Thursday. 

The agency also said it got more than 40,000 mailed letters, most opposed to any oil and gas activity in the coastal plain and “nearly identical” to comments it received during prior environmental reviews.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the withdrawn land does not have a high potential for oil.

“Most of the tracts removed from the sale are gas prone and have negligible oil potential,” David Houseknecht, USGS senior research geologist, said in an email. “Removal of those tracts likely will have minimal effect on a lease sale.”

Those opposed to the lease sale criticized the government’s last-minute change to the terms of the sale, and say it’s just another example of the Trump administration rushing to cram in a drilling-rights auction in its final weeks.

“This appears to be a real slapdash effort, right at the very end, to change things and will further confuse the public, potentially confuse the industry. And it’s just a very poor showing on the part of the administration,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

She said the land still up for leasing is critical habitat for polar bears, caribou and birds. 

Defenders of Wildlife is among more than a dozen groups and a coalition of 15 states that have filed lawsuits that aim to block drilling in the refuge.

Last week, motions for a preliminary injunction were filed in three of the lawsuits, with the groups asking the court to temporarily prohibit a lease sale and the permitting of any seismic work in the coastal plain until the ongoing litigation is resolved. The judge has said she’ll make a decision on the motions by Jan. 6.

RELATED: Gwich’in, conservation groups ask court to block ANWR oil leasing

BLM has said it’s following the law, and has conducted an environmental review of the oil leasing program.

BLM is the federal agency managing the lease sale following the approval of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. The act, approved by a Republican-led Congress, opened the coastal plain to oil and gas development after a nearly 40-year fight over whether to drill there. It also ordered the government to hold two lease sales in the coastal plain, the first by the end of 2021.

The coastal plain makes up about 8% of the vast Arctic refuge, and it’s thought to hold billions of barrels of oil. Those who support the sale, including Alaska’s congressional delegation, argue that opening the area to drilling is good for the economy and will create more revenue for the state and federal government.

RELATED: The Trump administration is moving to sell leases in ANWR, but will anyone show up for a sale?

BLM says it’s accepting sealed bids for the oil and gas leases from Monday until 4 p.m. Dec. 31. The government plans to open those bids on Jan. 6, and will stream the sale online

President-elect Joe Biden will take office two weeks later. He says he opposes drilling in the refuge, and so does his pick for Interior secretary.

RELATED: Biden’s pick for Interior secretary is a passionate foe of drilling in Arctic Refuge

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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