- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Trump administration pushed ahead Thursday with plans to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, releasing environmental drafts in preparation for oil-and-gas leasing sales as early as next summer.

The Bureau of Land Management proposal, which was submitted for a 45-day public-comment period, comes a year after the Republican-led Congress directed the administration to proceed with energy development on the 19-million-acre refuge as part of tax-reform legislation.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke described opening up the refuge to exploration and development as among the administration’s biggest accomplishments in “bolstering America’s economic strength and security.”

The Bureau of Land Management plans to hold its first sale next year on as many as 1.6 million acres of the coastal plain, also known as the 1002 Area, which is expected to draw strong interest from the fossil-fuel industry.

The announcement touched off a storm of opposition from environmental groups, who accused the administration of downplaying the potential risk to the habitat, while Alaska officials cheered as their battle to unlock the area to energy development moved closer to reality.

“I’ve fought for a long time to open the 1002 Area for oil and gas development, and this is a critical step toward reaching that goal,” said Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Alaskans have waited for the environmental analysis for decades and offered assurances that development “will be done utilizing the highest environmental standards and safeguards to protect its land, water and wildlife.”

Opening up the area to oil and gas has been the goal of Republican presidents dating back to 1980, the year President Jimmy Carter signed a conservation act allowing drilling only with the approval of Congress.

Efforts to pass congressional muster have been thwarted repeatedly by Democrats and environmental groups alarmed about the potential for harm to the isolated refuge. President Barack Obama proposed in 2015 designating the coastal plain as wilderness, which would have banned drilling.

The draft environmental impact statement concluded the sales could proceed while protecting caribou, polar bears, ducks, geese and other species, even as green groups accused the administration of moving too quickly with its environmental review.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is where we must make a stand against Trump’s ignorance and greed,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Here is where we protect our environment or accept climate chaos and the extinction crisis.”

Center for American Progress public-lands director Kate Kelly said the analysis “dramatically underestimates the permanent and irreversible damage that will result from oil spills, destruction of polar bear and caribou habitat, increased carbon pollution, and the desecration of wilderness.”

Opponents called on House Democrats to act in the next Congress. Already bills have been introduced to block ANWR development, although their chances of passing the Republican Senate, much less being signed by Mr. Trump, are remote.

Alaska Wilderness League executive director Adam Kolton called it a “land grab, pure and simple,” while the Wilderness Society’s Jamie Williams said the process was “rushed and reckless, defying good science and meaningful dialogue with stakeholders.”

On the other hand, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, praised the department for the “extensive time and attention” given to evaluating feedback from Alaskans, including the Inupiat and other Native communities.

“This Draft EIS brings us that much closer to unleashing America’s energy potential, filling up the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, boosting our economy, and providing good jobs for Alaskans, all while protecting the ecosystem in ANWR’s 1002 as we’ve done on the rest of Alaska’s North Slope for over 40 years,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan Alaska Republican.

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