The Trump administration’s last-minute attempt today to auction off part of a long-protected Arctic refuge to oil drillers brought almost zero interest from oil companies, forcing the state of Alaska into the awkward position of leasing the lands itself.
The coastal plain of the Arctic national wildlife refuge was up for sale to drillers as part of the Trump administration’s plan to pay for Republicans’ tax cuts with oil revenue. Conservatives argued the leases could bring in $900m, half for the federal government and half for the state.
But the lease sales fell dramatically short of that amount – with the high bids totaling about $14m on 11 tracts of land that cover about 600,000 acres of the 1.6m-acre coastal plain.
The results back up the arguments from environmental advocates and watchdog groups that leasing the public land is a bad deal for the country, particularly when oil is in such low demand and public scrutiny grows of the industry’s role in the climate crisis and damage to sensitive habitats. Drilling for new oil now, when the planet is already experiencing dangerous heating, would be irresponsible, they said.
“This lease sale was an epic failure for the Trump administration and the Alaska congressional delegation,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “After years of promising a revenue and jobs bonanza they ended up throwing a party for themselves, with the state being one of the only bidders.”
The deputy interior secretary, Kate MacGregor, said the sales would increase domestic energy production and create jobs.
The refuge has been protected for decades and is home to denning polar bears, migrating birds and Porcupine caribou – which are important to indigenous Alaskans. Congressional Republicans opened it to drilling as part of their tax legislation.
Alaska’s state-owned economic development corporation made almost all of the bids for the leases, in the hopes that oil companies will eventually be interested in the area. They spent $12m. Only two little-known companies participated in the sale. Major oil companies steered clear of the auction.
In addition to leasing out public lands, Trump’s agencies have been rapidly finalizing rollbacks to regulatory protections. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules that experts say could prevent the government from relying on landmark health studies while writing pollution standards. Just before Christmas, the agency also decided not to tighten standards for smog, despite research showing it increases risks for Covid-19.
Joe Biden’s transition team said in a call with reporters on Tuesday that they are discovering that Trump’s weakening of programs – particularly on the climate crisis – have been more severe than they expected.