Trump Administration Rushes To Sell Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Land For Drilling

12:12 minutes

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story by Tegan Hanlon originally appeared on Alaska Public Media.

In a last-minute push, the Trump administration announced Thursday that it plans to auction off drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in just over a month, setting up a final showdown with opponents before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The sale, which is set for Jan. 6, could cap a bitter, decades-long battle over whether to drill in the refuge’s coastal plain, and it would seal the administration’s efforts to open the land to development.

“We’ve followed a very logical and fairly lengthy, certainly very involved and public-oriented process to get us to this point. And this is the next logical step,” said Kevin Pendergast, deputy state director for resources with the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska.

But conservation and tribal groups who oppose oil and gas development in the coastal plain strongly disagree. And they blasted the administration on Thursday, saying it’s cutting corners so it can hand over leases to oil companies before Biden, who opposes drilling in the refuge, is sworn in and can block it.

“You’re one mile from the finish line and you decide to take a shortcut is what this screams to me, and you hope you don’t get caught,” said Matt Newman, a senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage. He represents three Gwich’in tribes who live near the refuge and oppose drilling on the coastal plain.

“This just smacks in the face of a normal procedure,” he said.

a coastal plain with snowcapped mountains in the background.
Research biologists pause among the wetlands of the coastal plain, with the Brooks Range in the background. During the short field research season, the biologists live and work in this remote camp at the edge of the continent. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

BLM’s announcement of a sale date Thursday came just about two weeks into its “call for nominations,” a 30-day window when oil companies and others can tell the government, confidentially, which tracts of land they’re interested in bidding on.

Typically, once that period ends, the government analyzes the comments to inform which pieces of land it will offer in a lease sale—and then the date of a sale is announced, said Athan Manuel, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which is opposed to drilling.

“The oil and gas program is usually more scheduled and systematic and by the book,” Manuel said. “That’s not happening with this case.”

Pendergast countered that the government is following regulations, including providing a 30-day notice of a lease sale.

“This just smacks in the face of a normal procedure.”

A statement about the sale will be posted online Monday, detailing which areas the government will offer for leasing. The call for nominations ends 10 days later, on Dec. 17.

“We’re allowing for the various steps of the process to take place,” Pendergast said. “We can put those together in different ways at different times.”

Matt Lee-Ashley, a former deputy interior secretary under President Barack Obama, described the Trump administration as “hell-bent on selling off the Arctic Refuge on its way out the door, rules and laws be damned.”

“This whole boondoggle can and should be tossed in the trash by the courts or the next administration,” Lee-Ashley, who’s now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said in a prepared statement.

Already, conservation and tribal groups, as well as a coalition of 15 states, have filed lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s environmental reviews. Opponents have also secured pledges from an array of banks that say they won’t finance oil development in the refuge.

The coastal plain represents about 8% of the vast refuge. And while it’s home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife, it’s also thought to hold billions of barrels of oil.

“Today we put the oil industry on notice,” said a statement Thursday from Jamie Rappaport Clark, head of Defenders of Wildlife. “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.”

The coastal plain, also known as the 1002 Area, covers about 1.6 million acres. It’s roughly the size of Delaware.

It represents about 8% of the vast refuge. And while it’s home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife, it’s also thought to hold billions of barrels of oil.

a colored map of the coast along the arctic national wildlife refuge. landmarks include NPRA, ANWR, denoting wilderness area inside ANWR
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain is shown in orange. Around 1.6 million acres, the area is roughly the size of Delaware, making up about 8% of the refuge. Credit: United States Geological Service

In a dramatic shift after nearly four decades of protections, a Republican-led Congress approved legislation in 2017 that opened up the coastal plain to oil development. It required two lease sales within seven years, the first scheduled for no later than the end of 2021.

In Kaktovik, the only community inside the coastal plain, some residents greeted Thursday’s news with enthusiasm. Matthew Rexford, Kaktovik’s tribal administrator, said drilling could boost the local economy.

“We have watched oil and gas development on the North Slope for almost 50 years,” he said in a phone interview. “And we believe that through the stringent regulatory environment and the oversight of our home rule borough, the North Slope Borough, all impacts from exploration and development can be mitigated to preserve the area.”

Alaska’s Congressional delegation, which has pushed to open the coastal plain to drilling, also praised Thursday’s announcement, saying development will create jobs. Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said it’s also good for the industry.

“Having a lease sale is the first step of getting access to responsibly developing resources that are needed to meet global demand,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty said she would not call the administration’s process rushed, since drilling in the refuge has been debated for decades. But she did say oil companies will have less time to prepare their bids than they normally do.

It remains unclear who might participate in a coastal plain lease sale. Oil and gas companies aren’t talking publicly about whether they plan to bid.

BLM says the sale will be conducted by video livestream.

Alaska Public Media’s Nat Herz contributed to this story. You can find more reporting on Alaska Public Media.

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Segment Guests

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon is the Alaska energy desk reporter at Alaska Public Media and is based in Anchorage, Alaska.

Sarah James

Sarah James is a Neetsa’ii Gwich’in elder and an anti-drilling advocate based in Arctic Village, Alaska.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, Ira Flatow is away. Later this hour we’ve got our annual roundup of the year’s best science books. 2020 may have been a dud, but the science reads weren’t duds. We’ll make our list and we’ll hear some of your picks. But first, it’s time to check in on the state of science.

SPEAKER 1: is–

SPEAKER 2: St. Louis Public Radio.

SPEAKER 3: Iowa Public Radio News

JOHN DANKOSKY: Local science stories of national significance. In Alaska, a decades long debate about oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has accelerated. The refuge is on Alaska’s North coast and was protected from drilling for nearly four decades. But in 2017, Congress approved legislation to open the area to oil development.

The Trump administration is now rushing to auction off drilling rights to oil and gas companies before he leaves office. So how could this impact both the state’s economy and the people who live nearby?

Joining us to break down what’s happening is Tegan Hanlon, a reporter for Alaska’s energy desk in Anchorage. Tegan, Welcome to Science Friday. Thanks so much for joining us.

TEGAN HANLON: Hey, thanks for having me on.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Why don’t you walk us through the latest information we have about the potential sale of this land.

TEGAN HANLON: Sure. So the Trump administration has now set an official date of a lease sale, it’s January 6th, they say the auction will be live streamed online, and companies have to submit their sealed bids for the drilling rights on this land by the end of December. And this timeline is really controversial. For one, the sale will be just two weeks before President-elect, Joe Biden takes office, and Biden has said he opposes drilling in the coastal plain.

And then two, the administration is breaking with its typical protocol. So there’s this step in the lead up to the lease sale called, The Call for Nominations. In this case, it started November 17th, it goes for 30 days, and it’s a time when oil companies and other interested parties can basically tell the government which tracts of land in the coastal plain they’d be interested in bidding on. So normally this call for nominations period closes, the government analyzes the comments, and then announces the date of the sale.

In this case, that didn’t happen. The sale notice was posted in the middle of the call for nominations, and that has generated a lot of push back from environmental groups and others who oppose drilling in the refuge.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Tell us a bit about who is opposed to this sale.

TEGAN HANLON: Sure. So for decades and continuing today, environmental and conservation groups have tried to keep oil rigs out of the refuge. The refuge is home to migratory caribou, and polar bears, and other animals, and those conservation groups say there is no way oil development can happen without harming wildlife, without harming the tundra, without exacerbating climate change in a place that’s already warming fast. And among some of the most vocal opponents too are the Gwich’in, an Indigenous group whose members hunt caribou that commonly give birth in the refuge, and who say the land is sacred.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to bring in, actually, a member of the Neetsa’ii Gwich’in, Sarah James. She’s an elder of this first nations community based in Arctic Village, Alaska. Arctic Village is just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sarah James, welcome to Science Friday. Thank you so much for joining us.

SARAH JAMES: Thank you for inviting me here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sarah, why is protecting this land from oil and gas development so important to your community?

SARAH JAMES: We’re about 100 miles South of a birth place for porcupine caribou, we call that place, [NON-ENGLISH] that means “sacred place where the life began,” and we always protect that area. We’ve been here for 20 to 40,000 years, so we always took care of the caribou, and in return, they took care of us. There’s 15 village that are aligned on this issue since 1988 where there was threaten to our nation. At that time, nobody really knows about us.

They don’t know about the caribou, they don’t know about Gwich’in, they don’t know about Arctic Village. They said, how can we win? Oil is so cruel, and they said, the only way is to educate, make friends, why we say no to oil, that was our direction. I was one of the elders that was appointed to teach the world why we say no to oil. We did that from 1988 to 2016, and we did well with it. Overcame many battles with our friends, but Trump came on 2016, Obama on my way out. And when Trump came in, everything went out of our hand.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You said everything went out of your hands when the Trump administration came on in 2016. Why did everything change for you?

SARAH JAMES: Because they don’t consider human rights. All that good work, it’s not important anymore. They did things without public process, this is a public interest land, and they put it in the tax bill year 2017, and they put the refuge in there to bring the money for the nation into tax bill. And that needs to be repealed. And also, our tribe, our leaders, they felt like it’s out of their hands because we always govern ourselves.

We always have the sovereignty rights to take care of our land, take care of our resource, and manage our people, our tribal people. So we depend on the caribou for food, it’s our food security, it’s our song, it’s our dance, it’s our language. Everything we say and do pertaining to a caribou because we always live with the caribou. And it is hard too, it’s our shelter and even today, a lot of our labor is making kolach or crafts, and that’s how we bring in some cash. And it’s our diet, 75% or more is one of the lead, it’s mainly caribou.

When it comes through our tribal land. When it gets a little our tribal land, we own it because everything on tribal land is ours. So we have a right and kind to it. That’s how we make it every day to day. And that’s what makes us who we are.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Tegan, Sarah has made reference to the tax bill, and I wonder if you can talk through what exactly that means. How this 2017 tax bill allowed for drilling in the Arctic National refuge?

TEGAN HANLON: Sure. So in 2017, we saw this pretty dramatic shift in this decades long fight over whether to drill in the coastal plain and that was this massive Tax Act. And there was a provision in the Tax Act that basically opened the coastal plain to oil and gas drilling, and it required the government to hold two lease sales in the coastal plain, the first by the end of 2021.

JOHN DANKOSKY: There are some lawsuits out there against this development, currently. What, right now, is heading into court?

TEGAN HANLON: Right. There are several lawsuits working their way through the court system right now. The plaintiffs include the Gwich’in tribes, as well as environmental groups. One of the lawsuits was filed by a coalition of 15 states, Alaska not included, who said the government’s environmental review of the proposed oil drilling underestimated the damage to habitat, to the climate, and they want a judge to overturn the interior department’s plan to auction off drilling rights in the refuge.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You’ve mentioned, Tegan, that the Trump administration obviously is interested in this. Who else is interested in this? Are the oil companies that have specifically said they want to drill here? Are there others in the state who are behind this and say, we want to make sure that this sale happens?

TEGAN HANLON: That’s a good question. So for a long time, Republican lawmakers have fought to open the coastal plain to drilling, that includes Alaska’s current congressional delegation, oil and gas industry groups have also celebrated this news. As far as which oil companies might bid on the drilling rights, we don’t really know for sure. Companies aren’t saying publicly whether they’re in or whether they’re out, and that’s not really surprising.

These lease sales are typically pretty competitive and companies hold their cards close. So what we do know is that there is just thick layers of uncertainty and risk to a January 6th lease sale from the lawsuits to money. Oil prices are still low and oil price war really hit the industry hard, and there are some major banks that have said they won’t fund drilling in the refuge.

So I guess that was the long way to say we don’t know for sure. And industry analysts have said we probably won’t know the extent of interest until January 6th when bids are actually unsealed.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And if bids come in and a sale is completed before January 20th, could the Biden administration actually come in and just reverse it? I mean, is there a chance that none of this really matters if the Biden administration takes office and says, we don’t want drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

TEGAN HANLON: There are a few things that the Biden administration could do. Some industry observers have theorized that perhaps the most likely is that the Biden administration intervenes during the permitting process. So just because an oil company pulls the drilling rights, they still need to get permitting for building infrastructure, everything from an ice road to a drill pad, so there has been speculation that the Biden administration could delay that permitting process or make it so onerous that companies decide to put their money elsewhere.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sarah, I asked Tegan about the lawsuits. Why do you think it’s so important to take legal action at this time?

SARAH JAMES: Because all our hands are tied. We did everything right and we always govern ourselves. We all have our own expertise, we have our own lawyers, anthropologists, oil expert, our own equity consultant. We got our own leaders, and we got our own land, we manage our own land. And we have the right to use our sovereignty rights to say no. This is our life. We filed a suit on June 9th at the same time, a 15 state filed suit under their sovereignty.

So we asked all the state to come through because most of the National banks are refusing to fund the development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So we’re asking people to support a tribal government and your state to get involved because they do have a sovereign rights to say no to a development on a public interest land, which belong to all Americans, belong to all the state. So you have a stake in there.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s all the time we have. I’d like to thank my guests. Tegan Hanlon, a reporter for Alaska’s energy desk, based in Anchorage. And Sarah James, a Neetsa’ii Gwich’in elder and advocate against oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Thank you both so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

TEGAN HANLON: Thanks, John.

SARAH JAMES: Thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sarah told us she was inspired to sing a song about the importance of the caribou in this land to her people.


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