The Interior Department issued its final order Monday for a commercial leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, moving to unlock a potential oil-and-gas gusher in the Alaska wilderness and underscoring the Trump administration’s energy independence push.
Alaska’s Republican governor and congressional delegation — facing an unexpectedly stiff test from Democrats this fall — immediately hailed the move as a boon for the state’s economy.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said that the first lease could be approved before the end of the year after formally greenlighting the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which governs drilling on the 1.56 million-acre section, or about 8% of the 19.3 million-acre refuge.
Despite a long-runing battle with environmentalist groups over opening ANWR to drilling, Mr. Bernhardt insisted in a press call that the new order “responsibly develops this national energy resource and uses the best available science to mitigate the impact to the surrounding landscape and wildlife.”
He emphasized that exploration of the coastal plain is not optional: After a 40-year debate, Congress directed his department to hold at least two lease sales — the first by December 2021 — in the 2017 tax cut law that opened up the refuge for development.
“The new law settled the question of whether the leasing exploration and development and transportation of natural gas could occur on small portion of ANWR,” said Mr. Bernhardt.
Even so, Democrats and environmental advocates who have long opposed drilling in ANWR decried the leasing program’s approval, citing the risk to wildlife and the potential worsening of the “climate crisis.”
Gina McCarthy, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, said the Trump administration’s “reckless, relentless boosting of the oil industry will irrevocably damage this cherished place and compound the global climate crisis. We will not let it stand.”
“The Trump administration never stops pushing to drill in the Arctic Refuge — and we will never stop suing them,” said Ms. McCarthy, now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Over the last four decades, Republicans have attempted to open the refuge to drilling. President Clinton vetoed a Republican bill to allow drilling in 1995, and congressional Democrats blocked a similar plan 10 years later.
Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, tweeted, “If we don’t act fast, this will be a devastating blow to our entire ecosystem — and it must be stopped!
But Republicans hailed the development of oil reserves in what is known as the 1002 Area estimated at between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels, which is expected to pour billions of dollars into Alaska’s oil-reliant economy after the withdrawal in recent years of several drilling companies.
Alaska Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy called the signing “a milestone in Alaska’s 40-year journey to responsibly develop our State and our Nation’s new energy frontier,” while Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, called it a “great day, not only for the state of Alaska, but also for American energy independence.”
“I thank all Alaskans who have worked for more than 40 years for responsible resource development in the 1002 area of ANWR,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican. “I particularly applaud the tireless advocacy of the many Alaska Natives — who call the area home — and who know firsthand how responsible oil production can provide enormous economic and social benefits while having minimal impact on the environment.”
Mr. Bernhardt estimated that development and production would begin about eight years after oil is found and continue for the next 50 years.
Ms. McCarthy noted that the Gwich’in tribes oppose the ANWR development, arguing it “threatens the heart of the largest pristine wildland left in America,” while Mr. Bernhardt pointed out that the Inuit people who live on the Northern Slope support it.
The approved plan includes restrictions on surface occupancy and operational timing aimed at protecting habitat and wildlife, including the caribou herds that call the region home.
“All permitted activities will incorporate required operating procedures and stipulated restrictions based on the best science and technology to ensure that energy development does not come at the expense of the environment,” said the Interior Department.