Interior launches ANWR leasing review

By Pamela King | 04/19/2018 01:13 PM EDT

Interior Department officials today mapped out their first steps toward allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Interior Department announced plans for a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Interior Department announced plans for a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Interior Department officials today mapped out their first steps toward allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The four-page notice of an environmental review, scheduled for publication in tomorrow’s Federal Register, sets the stage for oil and gas leasing within the 19-million-acre refuge, often called ANWR.

Drilling would be limited to the 1.6-million-acre coastal plain. The region is believed to hold large oil and gas resources but also provides habitat for species like the polar bear and Porcupine caribou.


"Developing our resources on the coastal plain is an important facet for meeting our nation’s energy demands and achieving energy dominance," said Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Joe Balash. "This scoping process begins the first step in developing a responsible path forward. I look forward to personally visiting the communities most affected by this process and hearing their concerns."

Under the terms of a landmark tax reform bill, which opened the door for drilling in ANWR, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management must hold at least two lease sales before December 2024 (E&E Daily, Dec. 20, 2017). Those sales will occur in the areas of the refuge with the highest hydrocarbon potential, according to the notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS).

The move drew immediate reaction from both sides of the drilling debate.

"This is just the first step in a very long process that the Department of Interior will have to go through to fulfill their obligations as directed in the Tax Act," said Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

She highlighted BLM’s commitment to meeting with interested groups across Alaska. BLM will hold five public scoping meetings in Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik and Utqiagvik, the notice says.

"Leasing in ANWR will not happen overnight," Moriarty said.

Opponents of the leasing strategy criticize the process as too rapid.

"The Department of the Interior is pursuing an irresponsibly aggressive timeline for Arctic Refuge drilling that reflects the Trump administration’s eagerness to turn over America’s public lands to private industry for development," Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. "They are taking reckless shortcuts that are a terrible violation of public trust."

Tomorrow’s notice sets in motion a 60-day comment period on BLM’s intention to prepare the review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt last year directed agency staff to limit NEPA reviews to one year and 150 pages (Greenwire, Sept. 6, 2017).

It’s unclear whether those restrictions will apply to the ANWR analysis, but Bernhardt has publicly stated that he expects the EIS to be complete within a year. Balash has said Bernhardt’s projections are overly optimistic (Energywire, March 12).

"By putting the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the hands of former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, Secretary Zinke has made clear that this rushed environmental review process will be nothing more than a kangaroo court," Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement.

Environmental groups told the Trump administration to brace for a legal battle.

"The Trump administration’s reckless dash to expedite drilling and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will only hasten a trip to the courthouse," Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark said in a statement. "We will not stand by and watch them desecrate this fragile landscape."

Lawmakers responded largely along party lines.

"We welcome this scoping announcement and the Department’s continued work to implement our legislation opening the Coastal Plain to responsible energy development," Alaska’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, said in a joint statement. "We appreciate the Department following the law, planning multiple public meetings with Alaskans, and moving forward on this important program to help ensure the energy and economic security of our nation."

House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and eight Democratic colleagues today sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke objecting to the "needless haste" toward leasing in ANWR.

"This administration’s naked greed and corporate favoritism have become an ongoing self-parody," Grijalva said in a statement. "This is the kind of rushed policy that gets made during a backroom deal, not a careful assessment of public opinion and scientific data. President Trump and Secretary Zinke count drilling in the Arctic Refuge as a win because it upsets Americans they don’t like, not because it will have any public benefit."