Just before leaving office, Trump administration finalizes Arctic refuge oil leases

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

On President Trump’s last full day in office, his administration announced that it officially issued leases for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The leases were signed on Thursday, about a week after the first-ever oil lease sale in the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain, according to Lesli Ellis-Wouters, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska.

RELATED: Arctic refuge lease sale goes bust, as major oil companies skip out

Groups opposed to drilling in the refuge blasted the Trump administration on Tuesday for issuing the leases so quickly.

The process usually takes about two months, and includes an antitrust review, said Jenny Rowland-Shea, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“We’re compressing a 60-day process, really, into two weeks, and that raises serious questions,” she said.

Ellis-Wouters defended the timeline, saying it’s shorter, in part, because the sale drew only a few bidders. Also, the administration made issuing the leases a top priority, she said.

“We definitely had more resources available to complete this process,” she said.

After decades of debate, the Trump administration held the first lease sale in the Arctic refuge on Jan. 6. It generated a tiny fraction of the revenue it was projected to raise.

No major oil companies submitted bids. Instead, two smaller companies each picked up one lease and the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority was the highest — and only — bidder on nine tracts.

RELEATED: Drilling boosters, opponents consider next steps after first Arctic refuge lease sale

An AIDEA spokeswoman said Tuesday that the authority decided to only finalize leases for seven of those tracts based on which had the highest resource potential.

According to federal estimates, the coastal plain potentially sits atop billions of barrels of oil. It’s also home to migrating caribou, polar bears, birds and other wildlife.

The oil leases issued by the Trump administration cover nine tracts of land that total about 440,000 acres — or roughly 30% of the coastal plain.

The leases are expected to face opposition from President-elect Joe Biden and a Democratic-led Congress.

Biden takes office Wednesday, and says he opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic refuge.

The issuance of oil leases could make it more difficult for Biden to reverse course. While it’s unclear what exactly he’ll do, it’s possible he could attempt to buy back the leases or suspend any work on the land. Several court cases that aim to cancel the leases are also ongoing.

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

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