Tussock tundra on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain.

Tussock tundra on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Trump administration remains on track to hold an oil lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this year, a top U.S. Interior Department official confirmed Thursday.

Interior is working on a final draft of an environmental impact statement for its oil leasing plan in the refuge’s coastal plain.

Speaking at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference in Anchorage, Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash said he expected that document to be released by August.

“Once we have a final EIS, we will be in a position to issue a record of decision and notice of lease sale,” Balash said. “And that lease sale will happen in 2019.”

Congress legalized drilling in the refuge in 2017, as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The legislation required Interior to hold the first Coastal Plain lease sale within four years of its passage.

Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash, a former Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner, answers questions from the Alaska Senate Resources Committee on Feb. 28, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Balash said Interior received over one million comments on its draft plan for leasing in the refuge.

Also at the conference, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige said the state aims to hold its annual oil lease sale on the same day as the Arctic Refuge oil lease sale.

In his remarks, Balash also commented on a recent court ruling that blocked the Trump administration’s move to reopen large portions of the Arctic Ocean to offshore oil leasing, calling it “really unfortunate.”

The Trump administration appealed the ruling this week. But Balash indicated he had reservations about how the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which has ruled against the Trump administration on several key cases — will respond.

“We have to go through the 9th Circuit, since it was Judge (Sharon) Gleason’s decision. Everybody in this room knows what kind of a hurdle that is,” Balash said. “We have a lot of work in front of us before we are going to know exactly what the future holds for the Arctic OCS.”

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