The administration said its preferred plan would call for the construction of as many as four places for airstrips and well pads, 175 miles of roads, vertical supports for pipelines, a seawater-treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site.
The refuge — home to polar bears, wolves, migratory birds and the Porcupine caribou herd — has long been closed off to oil and gas exploration despite long-standing interest among members of the petroleum industry. Climate change has made the area more delicate as melting ice has driven threatened polar bears to spend more time in dens along the refuge’s coastal plain.
President Trump is dismissive of climate change, but the BLM conceded that it is having distinct effects on wildlife in the region. Although the report says there might be “positive effects on some species,” such as geese, eiders, loons and swans, it also says there could possibly be “catastrophic consequences” for birds as well as the extinction of 69 of the 157 bird species on the coastal plain over an 85-year period, according to an earlier report by Energy and Environment News.
The BLM also said certain species, such as the Beringia bearded seal, which is not considered threatened, would go extinct by 2095 as a result of climate change. Bearded seals depend heavily on sea ice.
But the agency, which law requires to divulge climate concerns, said “the large magnitude of climate change effects” would be “likely to overshadow smaller magnitude impacts of oil development.” The extinction of scores of bird species could happen “with or without oil leasing and development.”
A controversial provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 provided for opening up ANWR’s coastal plain to drilling and ordered the administration to hold at least two lease sales within seven years.
Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement that the plan would “protect high-value wildlife habitats and important uses in this area, while advancing the President’s agenda on energy independence.”
Environmental groups deplored the administration’s move.
Defenders of Wildlife issued a statement saying that the BLM’s “destructive, unlawful plan would sell off one of America’s last great wildlands to the highest bidder.”
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive of the nonprofit organization, called the administration’s actions “categorically illegal” and “presents an existential threat to threatened polar bears and is opposed by 70 percent of Americans.”
“By opening the entire coastal plain to oil drilling, the Trump administration has ignored data showing likely impacts on wildlife including the Porcupine Caribou Herd and polar bears,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director of the Wilderness Society. “The sprawl from oil activities in the coastal plain allowed under the Tax Act would devastate this ecologically sensitive landscape.”
All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, as well as Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) and the American Petroleum Institute, hailed the administration’s plan.
“The Coastal Plain is a small portion of ANWR that has been identified for oil and natural gas exploration and the potential for safe and environmentally responsible energy development in this area is incredibly large and a key part of a long-term vision for U.S. energy security,” API Vice President Erik Milito said in an email. “Responsible access to the Arctic region is in our national security interest, with other nations like Russia, Canada and Norway already actively exploring the area.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who wrote the provision instructing the Interior Department to hold lease sales there, said in a statement, “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.”
Dunleavy noted that every Alaska governor since 1980 has supported opening up the coastal plain “to responsible resource development.”
Ironically, some major oil companies that for years sought access to ANWR have packed up and left Alaska, leaving a handful of smaller independent firms that are expanding their drilling activities. Royal Dutch Shell suffered a blow when a $7 billion well in the Chukchi Sea came up dry. And last month, BP sold its Alaska assets in Prudhoe Bay to Hilcorp.
ConocoPhillips, which said that it did not oppose drilling in the refuge, said that it had not yet decided whether to bid on leases. The company, which has made new discoveries in the nearby National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska to the west, said it was “focused on our projects” there “where we see tremendous potential.”
Some Alaska Natives — including the Gwich’in, who live outside the refuge but who rely on the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates through it — also decried the administration’s move.
“This document disrespects the Gwich’in Nation and all people in the Arctic and world who suffer the impacts of climate change and nonstop exploitation, while formally scratching the backs of those who seek to desecrate land and dishonor human rights to fill their pockets,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.
The BLM must hold 30 days of public comment before releasing a final record of decision, at which point the agency could hold a lease sale.
The agency’s own official analysis indicated that drilling would affect native villages, including residents of Kaktovik, because they are the “primary users” of the refuge. The 450-person village of Nuiqsut, the agency wrote, “could experience impacts on caribou, waterfowl, and fish harvests from development.”
Many residents in Kaktovik have endorsed the idea of drilling on the refuge, on the grounds that they would receive a share of royalties from any discoveries. In an interview in June, Joe Balash, who helped oversee the environmental impact statement as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said he was committed to opening the area up to energy exploration in part because it would provide these native Alaskans with a source of revenue.
Balash recently joined the firm Oil Search less than a week after stepping down from Interior. It is unclear whether Oil Search, which is expanding its operations in the North Slope, will bid on the ANWR leases. It is developing an area closer to the nearby National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
In a show of opposition to the lease sale, House Democrats voted Thursday to reverse the provision of the 2017 Republican tax bill that opened the door to drilling in the refuge.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), lead sponsor of the measure, argued that the Arctic refuge is “sacred.” Alaska’s lone representative in Congress, Don Young (R), called it a “sham bill” the people of his state do not want.
The bill passed in a 225-to-193 vote mostly along party lines, but it has virtually no chance of being taken up in the Senate.
Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.