Trump administration rushes to auction off rights to oil drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.Christopher Miller/NYT

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has called for oil and gas companies to pick spots where they want to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as it races to open the pristine wilderness to development and lock in drilling rights before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The ''call for nominations,'' to be published Tuesday, allows companies to identify tracts to bid on during an upcoming lease sale on the refuge’s nearly 1.6-million-acre coastal plain, a sale that the Interior Department aims to hold before Biden takes the oath of office Jan. 20. The move would be a capstone of President Trump’s efforts to open up public lands to logging, mining, and grazing — something Biden strongly opposes.


A GOP-controlled Congress in 2017 authorized drilling in the refuge, a vast wilderness that is home to tens of thousands of migrating caribou and waterfowl, along with polar bears and Arctic foxes.

''Receiving input from industry on which tracts to make available for leasing is vital in conducting a successful lease sale,'' said Chad Badgett, the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska state director, in a statement. ''This call for nominations brings us one step closer to holding a historic first Coastal Plain lease sale, satisfying the directive of Congress in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and advancing this administration’s policy of energy independence.''

The administration is pressing ahead with other moves to expand energy development and scale back federal environmental rules. It aims to finalize a plan to open up the vast majority of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to drilling, as well as adopt a narrower definition of what constitutes critical habitat for endangered species and when companies are liable for killing migratory birds.

At the Energy Department, officials may weaken energy-efficiency requirements for showerheads before Inauguration Day.

It is unclear how much appetite there is in the oil and gas industry for drilling in the refuge, given the lack of infrastructure there and the public backlash that could accompany such a move. The area provides habitat for more than 270 species, including the world’s remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen, and 300,000 snow geese.


Gwich’in Steering Committee executive director Bernadette Demientieff, whose people have traveled with the caribou on the refuge for thousands of years, said in a statement: ''Any company thinking about participating in this corrupt process should know that they will have to answer to the Gwich’in people and the millions of Americans who stand with us. We have been protecting this place forever.''

But smaller players might be willing to bid on leases, which would be difficult to claw back once they are finalized. Some Alaska Native tribal corporations have expressed an interest in conducting seismic tests to identify oil reserves on the coastal plain, and they aim to complete that work this winter.

Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview Friday that the administration is operating ''under a tight timeline,'' but he added that many Alaskans support drilling in the refuge and that the 2017 law gives officials a solid legal basis for moving forward.

''Our view is that Congress has acted,'' Macchiarola said. ''Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a long time coming. It’s overdue, and it’s important to our nation’s energy security.''


Drilling in the refuge has been an ideological litmus test for more than a generation, and environmentalists have pressed major financial institutions not to back it even as it creeps closer to becoming a reality. Some major banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, have announced they will not finance projects in the refuge.

On Monday, the Oslo-based energy research firm Rystad Energy published an analysis saying that going forward, ''companies will be less willing to drill high-risk wells in environmentally sensitive frontier areas, both for financial and environmental reasons. As a result, the full petroleum potential of areas like the Alaskan Arctic, Foz do Amazonas in Brazil and the Barents Sea may never be unlocked.''

The Bureau of Land Management will hold a 30-day comment period once the call for nominations is published Tuesday. Once that period closes, the agency could publish a lease sale notice, which must be published 30 days before an auction takes place. Under that timeline, drilling rights could be sold before Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

Several environmental groups are challenging the administration’s overall oil and gas leasing program for the refuge in four separate lawsuits. If one of those challenges prevails, it could effectively void the leases.

Eric Grafe, deputy managing attorney for the Alaska office of Earthjustice, said in an e-mail that the leases could be in jeopardy for other reasons, as well. It often takes several weeks to process bids, because the Bureau of Land Management must screen the highest bids for ethical and legal issues before issuing contracts. If the agency holds an auction but doesn’t finalize the leases before Biden’s inauguration, ''the new administration may be able to avoid issuing them, particularly if it concludes the program or lease sale was unlawfully adopted.''


''Even if leases are issued by the Trump administration, the Biden administration could seek to withdraw the leases if it concludes they were unlawfully issued or pose too great a threat to the environment,'' he said, adding that the leaseholders could then argue they deserve financial compensation if the leases are invalidated.