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Trump administration moves forward with sale of oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Bureau of Land Management announced on Thursday that it plans to sell oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19.64 million-acre area in northeastern Alaska, on January 6. The timeline of the sale has been accelerated in recent weeks, making it possible that the sale could be finalized before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. 

The Federal Register will publish a notice of sale on December 7, which will initiate a 30-day comment period prior to the lease sale date. The sale will pave the way for companies to drill along the coastal plain. 

Last month, oil companies were given a 30-day window to tell the government what land they would like to be included in the sale. That window was supposed to end on December 17 — and according to The New York Times, the bureau would typically then take weeks to review the comments before it decided what land to include in the sale. 

The rushed timeline suggests that the Trump administration may be trying to finalize the sale before the Biden administration takes power on January 20. Mr. Biden has said he will permanently protect the refuge.

The Bureau of Land Management had until December 2021 to make the sale, which was approved as part of tax legislation in 2017, according to the Times.

“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,” Bureau of Land Management state director Chad Padgett said in a statement. “The law makes oil and gas development one of the purposes of the refuge, clearly directing the Secretary, acting through the Bureau of Land Management, to carry out a competitive leasing program for the potentially energy rich Coastal Plain.”

The program could potentially impact 1.6 million acres of the coastal plain, accounting for 8% of the entire refuge. Environmental activists and organizations, however, are not convinced of its safety or potential. 

The coastal plain is home to numerous fish and wildlife species, including polar bears and sea ducks. Oil drilling has long been criticized for its potential impact on the environment, and last year, Mr. Trump relaxed safety regulations for oil and gas companies.

The Sierra Club blasted the Trump administration for a move that it said could negatively impact wildlife and “ignored the human rights of Indigenous people that depend on the land and wildlife in the Arctic Refuge for their food security of way of life.” 

“This is a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to give one last handout to the fossil fuel industry on his way out the door, at the expense of our public lands and our climate,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “The Trump administration’s rushed and sloppy push to sell off the Arctic Refuge for drilling has been a disaster from day one, and has ignored the serious and permanent damage drilling would do to this unique ecosystem and the communities that depend on it.” 

A Record of Decision published in August outlines operating procedures and stipulations for companies who may lease the land, which includes protections for wildlife.

Policy and action group Environment America described the move as an “outrage.” Just a few weeks ago, the group posted a video encouraging oil companies not to lease the area, saying it is “too special” and “too sacred” to risk harming. 

Six major U.S. banks — Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America — have all said they will not finance drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to the Sierra Club. 

Brune said if any company is “foolish enough” to place a bid on the area, it will undoubtedly face legal and financial uncertainty and “massive public backlash.” 

“Unlike Donald Trump’s political career, the fight to protect the Arctic Refuge is far from over,” Brune said. 

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