JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to hold an oil and gas lease sale in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge next month, weeks before President-elect Joe Biden, who has opposed drilling in the region, is set to take office.
Conservation groups criticized Thursday's announcement as rushed and based on environmental reviews that are being challenged in court as flawed.
“Today we put the oil industry on notice. Any oil companies that bid on lease sales for the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should brace themselves for an uphill legal battle fraught with high costs and reputational risks," Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.
Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation celebrated the passage of legislation in 2017 allowing for drilling in the refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, seeing it as a way to boost oil production, create jobs and generate royalties.
Alaska political leaders for years pushed for opening the area for exploration in a state that relies heavily on oil. But the Indigenous Gwich’in people have opposed development within the refuge, citing concerns about the effects on a caribou herd that they have relied on for subsistence. Conservation groups also have fought drilling in the refuge.
Last month, the Bureau of Land Management announced a 30-day period for parties to nominate or comment on land in the refuge's coastal plain that could be part of a sale. It said it also would seek comments on whether the size of any tracts of land should be reduced and whether any should receive special considerations.
The land agency said a notice that solicits bids would be published at least 30 days ahead of the sale, which it expects to hold on Jan. 6. However, the comment period was not set to end until Dec. 17.
The agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Its Alaska director, Chad Padgett, said in a news release that 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.”
Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said companies are not likely to discuss publicly any plans to participate in a lease sale for competitive reasons.
With the announced timeline, she said companies will have less time to prepare bids. But she said this is not an unknown area.
“It's an area that people have been aware of ... for over 40 years,” she said.