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Trump administration takes another step toward oil drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A Polar bear in Kaktovic, Alaska. (Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The Trump administration took another step toward allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by issuing a draft environmental impact statement outlining four development alternatives, one of which would set some modest limits to protect caribou that use the area as a critical summer calving ground.

Environmental groups roundly criticized the report, which they said had been rushed in an effort to get exploration started during President Trump’s first term.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management said on Thursday that it still intends to hold an oil and gas lease sale in 2019 that would open up exploration of the refuge’s coastal plain, or approximately 1.6 million acres of the 19.3 million acre ANWR.

BLM said that the first lease sale would offer no fewer than 400,000 acres of “high-potential” land for bids.

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 interest in 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.

However, a controversial provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 passed one year ago Thursday provided for opening up ANWR’s coastal plain to drilling and ordered the administration to hold at least two lease sales within seven years.

Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to get fast review

“An energy-dominant America starts with an energy-dominant Alaska,” outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. And Alaska’s Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan applauded the move toward drilling.

One of the four development alternatives in the 392-page draft would attempt to protect the caribou’s summer habitat by putting aside 708,600 acres while still allowing oil and gas leases on more than 1 million acres, the draft EIS said.

Some of the alternative sets of regulations would limit some summer activity to avoid disturbing calving caribou season. But the BLM draft study says that those limitations can be waived without laying out what criteria would be used for doing so.

“If you’re going to have leasing at all, which I don’t think we should be doing, the idea of closing it during the most sensitive times is good,” said Tim Fullman, a wildlife ecologist at The Wilderness Society. “The question is will you actually stick to that or have they written in loopholes so that they can evade that if they really wanted to.”

The BLM said it would hold public meetings in D.C. and the Alaskan cities of Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik, Fort Yukon, Venetie, Utqiaġvik. It set a 45-day comment period ending Feb. 11. A final EIS would follow, then a lease sale.

Environmental groups were unhappy with the process.

“There’s no precedent for anything done this quickly for an environmental review of this scale,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. He said that “this is really a rubber-stamp exercise rather than an effort to mitigate the impact to wildlife on the coastal plain.”

He said that the location of the public hearings — all but one in Alaska — was unfair to people living in the Lower 48 states. “These are public lands that belong to all Americans,” he said, adding that polls show widespread opposition to drilling in the refuge.

The Wilderness Society issued a report saying that the administration’s estimates of oil in the refuge “was based on outdated information and overly optimistic assumptions about how much oil exists in the region, the price of such oil and the speed with which it could be developed and taken to market.”

The society’s report notes that the December 2017 sale on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska attracted bids on less than one percent of the 10.3 million acres offered.

A source familiar with Alaska lease sales but who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that for now, oil companies weighing bids include ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, ASRC, Oil Search, Armstrong and Repsol.

Over the past 41 years, giant oil companies have produced 13 billion barrels of crude oil from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay and any new production on the state’s North Slope could be hooked up to existing pipeline infrastructure.

The urgency of discovering and producing more oil in the region to fill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has eased somewhat by increased drilling and new discoveries on state and unprotected federal lands west of ANWR. Those developments will bolster the oil flowing through the pipeline, which was carrying only a quarter of its capacity. Volumes of oil going through the line have increased to 530,000 barrels a day this year, up from 508,000 barrels a day in 2015.

More volume lies ahead. ConocoPhillips has repeatedly increased its estimates of a 2016 discovery of the Willow field in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. It said in a recent presentation to investors that the field could hold as much as 1.1 billion barrels of oil and could produce 100,000 barrels a day.

This winter BP is also conducting a large seismic survey of Prudhoe Bay looking for new opportunities.

The Interior Department draft environmental impact study comes after an earlier dispute between the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which said that seismic surveys used to pinpoint potential oil reservoirs would inflict damage on the refuge.

Earlier this month, the publication Mother Jones reported that an internal memo written in September by the head of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Service noted that seismic surveys involving vibrations of the earth from equipment on trucks posed a danger to the polar bears. The author of the memo later told Mother Jones in an email that “the application has changed, and as a result, our analyses and findings have changed.”