On Thursday, President Donald Trump’s administration took one of the last steps to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The U.S. Interior Department has released its final environmental analysis for oil lease sales in the northernmost 1.6 million acres of the refuge, known as the coastal plain. The agency is expected to sign a final decision on oil leasing in the refuge in roughly 30 days.
In its final environmental impact statement, the agency selected a preferred option that would give oil companies the chance to express interest in close to the entirety of the refuge’s coastal plain.
Interior had proposed alternatives with tighter restrictions, including one that would put hundreds of thousands of acres off limits to help protect caribou habitat.
Still, during a call with reporters, Bureau of Land Management Alaska State Director Chad Padgett said he believes the agency’s preferred choice would strike the right balance between economic development and protecting the environment.
“I’m confident that we are on track to do what Congress has asked us to do in a safe and balanced way, that advances the president’s goals of job creation and energy independence with the minimal impact to the area,” Padgett said.
There are restrictions to how oil companies can develop in the area under the preferred alternative, including limitations on how much surface area can be covered by infrastructure.
But environmental groups immediately condemned Interior’s analysis, calling it a “sham.”
In an interview, Susan Culliney with Audubon Alaska said she isn’t surprised the Trump administration’s preference is to try to maximize the amount of land available for oil leasing.
“No matter how you cut it, we don’t think oil drilling belongs in the Arctic Refuge, but this is a particularly bad way to do it,” Culliney said.
The issue has long been hugely controversial, and following Congress’ vote to allow drilling in the refuge in 2017, Interior’s push to make it happen has been tumultuous.
An effort to allow early-stage oil exploration in the refuge last winter stalled. Joe Balash, the Interior official spearheading the effort to hold a lease sale, recently left the Trump administration to take a job at an oil company.
And Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would once again block oil development in ANWR. That legislation is largely symbolic, as it has little chance of passing the Republican-led Senate. Still, it sends a strong signal regarding Democrats’ position on drilling in the refuge ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Alaska’s political leaders condemned the House bill and praised the release of the environmental review.
“I’m hopeful we can now move to a lease sale in the very near future, just as Congress intended, so that we can continue to strengthen our economy, our energy security, and our long-term prosperity,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who played a pivotal role in passing the legislation that allowed for oil development in ANWR.
Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaska Native corporation with a significant stake in potential oil development on the coastal plain, also welcomed the release.
“We are encouraged the Department heard our voices and incorporated our concerns into the final EIS. We look forward to a successful lease sale and strongly believe exploration and production can incorporate cultural and environmental protections while providing for the nation’s energy security,” ASRC said in a statement.
Neets’aii Gwich’in leaders from Alaska Native communities south of the refuge, who have long opposed drilling there, accused the Interior Department of downplaying potential impacts.
“Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates, and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual, and subsistence impacts on our people,” Native Village of Venetie First Chief Margorie Gemmill said in a statement. “This process must be stopped.”
With the release of the final environmental review, leaders at Trump’s Interior Department reiterated that they aim to let oil companies bid on land in ANWR’s coastal plain before the end of the year.
This story has been updated.