The Trump administration is moving to sell leases in ANWR, but will anyone show up for a sale?

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop in October 2010. (Public domain photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

The battle over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain has dragged on for decades.

And now, the Trump administration is close to auctioning off drilling rights for the land in northeast Alaska — potentially just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.

But there’s a big, unanswered question looming over the idea of a sale: To what degree will the industry actually participate?

Oil and gas companies aren’t talking publicly about whether they’d bid. And Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said that’s not surprising.

“Participation in lease sales is one of the most competitive and secretive things between companies,” she said. “So I don’t know who is interested in participating in a state lease sale, any more than I know who is interested in participating in the next NPR-A lease sale, or in the coastal plain of ANWR.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain is shown in orange. The area covers about 1.6 million area, roughly the size of Delaware, and makes up about 8% of the refuge. (USGS map)

Moriarty said the public likely won’t have the full picture of industry interest until the federal government unseals the bids on the day of a sale. A sale date has not been announced yet, but the way the government’s timelines work, one could be held just before Inauguration Day.

And while oil and gas companies are mum, industry experts and analysts do have a read on what a lease sale might look like.

“My view is that any response will be fairly lukewarm,” said Rowena Gunn, an analyst for the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie.

Alaska politicians and industry groups have long fought to get drill rigs on the coastal plain, which is thought to hold billions of barrels of oil, but Gunn and others say there’s currently a layer of uncertainty and risk that could lead to limited interest in a lease sale if one happens within the next couple months.

“They’ll probably get some bids,” said Larry Persily, an oil industry observer and former federal coordinator for Alaska gas line projects under President Barack Obama. “But even at fire-sale prices, there probably won’t be a rush of interest.”

That’s for a number of reasons, he said.

One of them is money.

The coronavirus pandemic and an oil price war have both hit the oil industry hard. Oil prices are still low, and it’s expensive and difficult to explore for oil in the Arctic, said Mark Myers, a geologist and former natural resources commissioner in Alaska.

“The prices have fallen down to a level that leaves very little capital for exploration in these companies,” Myers said. “So that’s one of the biggest negatives.”

Also, there’s the opposition, Gunn said, which may weigh more heavily on publicly-traded companies.

“There’s a certain amount of public opinion that it wouldn’t necessarily be good PR for them to be seen as drilling in the Arctic or drilling in environmentally-sensitive areas,” she said.

While some, including Alaska’s congressional delegation, have celebrated the prospect of a lease sale as a way to create more jobs and revenue for the state, others are fighting to keep oil and gas companies out of the refuge, citing concerns about impacts on ecosystems, Indigenous people and the climate.

Indigenous and conservation groups have already filed multiple lawsuits that aim to block drilling in the coastal plain. They’re asking major insurers to not support any oil and gas projects in the refuge. And an array of big banks have already said they won’t fund new oil and gas projects in the Arctic.

There’s a list of other reasons too why some analysts say they wouldn’t expect a deluge of bids.

That includes future demand for oil.

Colorado-based energy economist Philip Verleger said he thinks a lease sale in the refuge 15 years ago would have been “terrifically successful,” but, he said, he thinks the time to develop the coastal plain has passed.

“I do not think ANWR is ever going to be produced,” he said. “The cost of going there and developing and putting the resources in is too high, particularly since the production would last a long time, and we don’t know if demand would last as long.”

Gunn also said some of the larger oil companies operating in Alaska are busy with other projects, such as ConocoPhillips’ work in the NPR-A and Hilcorp taking over oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.

Both companies declined to say whether they had plans to participate in a lease sale in the refuge, if one is held. ExxonMobil also declined to comment for this article.

Chevron said it would consider it “in the context of its global exploration portfolio.” Oil Search said it is “focused on developing the Pikka project and exploring our current leases.”

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty of all that the industry is facing is the changing administration.

Biden has said he opposes drilling in the refuge.

Andy Mack, another former Alaska natural resources commissioner, said even if the Trump administration issues leases before leaving office, Biden’s administration could delay the permits that companies need to search for oil and build their infrastructure.

“What they would try to do is make it so difficult, so onerous, to get the array of permits that the companies just kind of say, ‘Well, we’re not going to spend 10 years just trying to get a simple permit, we’re going to put our money and our investment elsewhere,’” Mack said.

However, Mack said, it’s also possible companies could secure leases and just wait for the administration to change again.

He and Myers underscored that the flip side of all this is that the refuge is still thought to hold a whole lot of oil. And, for some companies, that payoff could outweigh any risk or uncertainty.

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