Though US President Donald Trump has got only less than 10 days left in office, his administration marked last Wednesday one of the most significant environmental rollbacks accomplished in his term by auctioning off oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This has to be read in context with the fact that as of May 2020, the Trump administration had rolled back 64 environmental rules and regulations, and an additional 34 rollbacks were in progress. The latest step has come as a culmination of Republicans’ decades-long quest to drill in one of the nation’s most vast unspoiled wild places. The giant Alaskan wilderness is home to many important species, including polar bears, caribou and wolves.
The state agency, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, was the main bidder, as major oil companies did not participate in the light of weak oil prices and more banks unwilling to finance Arctic energy projects. The agency put up all but two of the winning bids, which went to a couple of small energy firms. The sale of 11 tracts on just over 550,000 acres netted $14.4mn, a tiny fraction of what Republicans initially predicted it would yield. Only two of the bids were competitive, so nearly all of the land sold for the minimum price of $25 an acre.
While a 2017 law compels the government to auction another several hundred thousand acres by the end of 2024, the incoming Biden administration may be able to overturn that requirement now that Democrats have won control of the Senate in the wake of Tuesday’s runoff elections in Georgia. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will offer drilling rights to most of the refuge’s nearly 1.6mn-acre coastal plain, which attracts hundreds of thousands of migrating caribou and waterfowl each year and provides critical habitat for the Southern Beaufort Sea’s remaining polar bears. As sea ice on the Arctic Ocean abutting the refuge shrinks, the bears — threatened with extinction due to climate change — have been forced to spend more time on land. Federal scientists estimate that a third of the bears’ maternal dens lie within the area the administration has opened up for energy development.
The refuge has become a rallying point for Republicans and environmentalists alike, who have fought for 40 years over whether to tap into the fossil fuels lying beneath it. The government estimates there could be 7.7bn barrels of recoverable oil on the coastal plain, though seismic surveys have not been conducted since the 1980s. The BLM is in the process of letting the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation conduct seismic tests there this winter. The sale marks the culmination of President Trump’s push to expand oil and gas drilling across the country, including in some of its most ecologically sensitive areas. On Monday, the BLM opened up an additional 7mn acres for leasing on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, home to a critical calving area for tens of thousands of caribou and migratory feeding ground for hundreds of thousands of birds.
Trump officials predict that extracting oil from the relatively pristine refuge, which supports 270 species, will require as many as four airstrips and major well pads, 175 miles of roads, vertical supports for pipelines, a seawater treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site. Drilling operations could last for nearly a half-century. In other words, they would irreversibly damage the fragile Alaskan environment. Last month the BLM withdrew nearly 475,000 acres from the auction, citing public concerns about drilling’s impact on the caribou herd. The only hope for environmentalists is that President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he opposes any development on the refuge.
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