The Trump administration has formally announced the go-ahead for the fiercely opposed sale of controversial gas and oil drilling licences in the Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge is a pristine wilderness and home to polar bears, caribou and many other wildlife species.
The sale of leases is planned for 6 January 2021, a few days before Trump leaves the White House.
While the Trump administration was known to be pushing ahead with the plans, the federal Bureau of Land Management confirmed in a press release on Thursday that it would publish a notice of the sale on Monday 7 December – timed to be just ahead of the inauguration of the US president-elect, Joe Biden, who opposes the move.
The announcement came earlier than expected and ahead of the end of the public comments process. The sale would be conducted via video livestream, according to the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Trump had authorised sales of the gas and oil leases in the Alaska national park in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which he signed into law that year, calling for two leases of at least 400,000 acres each within the refuge’s coastal plain.
“Congress directed us to hold lease sales in the ANWR coastal plain, and we have taken a significant step in announcing the first sale in advance of the December 2021 deadline set by law,” said Chad Padgett, BLM Alaska state director, in the statement issued in Anchorage, Alaska.
The statement added: “Oil and gas from the coastal plain is an important resource for meeting our nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities.
“The law makes oil and gas development one of the purposes of the refuge, clearly directing the secretary, acting through the Bureau of Land Management, to carry out a competitive leasing program for the potentially energy rich coastal plain.”
Adam Kolton, head of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement: “President Trump’s electoral fate has been sealed and his days in office are numbered, making an Arctic Refuge lease sale yet another dangerous political favour that lacks broad public support or legal credibility.”
The coastal plain encompasses about 1.6m acres, and makes up about 8% of the refuge.
While some experts think that the expedited timeline on the lease sales could help challenges in court against the drilling plans, others are concerned that if the leases are finalised before Biden’s inauguration they might be difficult to unpick.
The drilling is opposed by environmental groups and some Alaska native communities who have warned about the potential impact on caribou herds, who calve in the spring in the coastal plain.
“Oil and gas drilling could wipe out polar bears on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in our lifetimes,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive of Defenders of Wildlife.
Communities in the region say they will also be disproportionately affected by the leasing of Arctic lands to oil and gas companies.
The Trump administration has continued to push ahead with its plans despite the refusal of US financial institutions, most recently Bank of America, to finance oil drilling in the Arctic region.
Bank of America’s announcement this week meant that it joined otherbig American banks, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citi, with similar policies.
Larry Di Rita, head of public policy for the bank, told Bloomberg on Monday: “There’s been misunderstanding around our position, but we have not historically participated in project finance for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.”