© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Activists attend a protest against the legislation that would open Wilderness in Alaska to oil drilling on Capitol Hill in Washington
(Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday said it would issue a sale notice for oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) next week, putting it on track to hold a drilling auction in the ecologically sensitive area shortly before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The move is the latest step toward pulling off the first ever sale of oil and gas leases in a pristine area of the Arctic before Biden, a Democrat who opposes energy development there, becomes president on Jan. 20.
Opening ANWR to drilling is an important pillar of outgoing Republican President Donald Trump’s agenda to expand domestic fossil fuel production. But green groups and Democrats have cast it as a giveaway to Big Oil that would harm the Arctic’s unique ecosystem and native people.
The sale notice will be published on Monday, setting up a sale to be held on Jan. 6 via video livestream, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said in a statement.
The announcement comes a little more than two weeks after Trump’s Republican administration issued a request to energy companies to identify what specific areas in the refuge should be offered for sale. The companies have 30 days to respond, and a sale notice was not expected to be issued until the end of that period.
“The Trump Administration is hell-bent on selling off the Arctic Refuge on its way out the door, rules be damned,” Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in an emailed statement.
Holding a lease sale is just one of many steps in energy development, and oil and gas companies would have several big obstacles to overcome before any wells could be drilled.
It typically takes several weeks for leases to be issued once a sale is held, a formality that could fall to the next administration.
In addition, environmentalists, native groups and Democratic-led states have filed four lawsuits aimed at stopping drilling in ANWR. They are currently weighing their legal options now that a sale appears likely, two of the green groups said.
Finally, several major U.S. banks have said they will not finance oil and gas projects in the Arctic region.
Alaskan oil production has dwindled in the last three decades, and it is unclear whether the sale will attract much interest from the industry. ANWR has been tested only once for the potential to extract fossil fuels.
Drilling had been banned in the refuge for decades before Republican-led tax legislation signed in 2017 removed that ban. Lawmakers in Alaska have long pushed to open up the area to oil and gas exploration.
BLM’s Alaska state director, Chad Padgett, said in a statement that oil and gas from ANWR’s coastal plain “is an important resource for meeting our Nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities.”
Bureau of Land Management officials were not immediately available to comment on the timeline. A White House spokesman would not comment.
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