With just over two months left in office, the Trump administration seems hell-bent on wreaking as much havoc on the country as possible. On Monday, the administration announced that it would start selling leases to oil and gas companies to allow them to begin drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. This is the administration’s latest attempt to roll back environmental protections and open up public lands to commercial use.
It is unclear how far this last-ditch effort will get. The Bureau of Land Management posted a “call for nominations” on Monday, which invites oil and gas companies to specify which tracts of land along the roughly 1.5 million acres of arctic coastline in the refuge they would like to drill. Even with the administration’s accelerated timeline, the earliest lease sales could occur would be January 17, three days before inauguration. As the New York Times notes, President-elect Joe Biden opposes drilling in the refuge, and his administration would likely have to review the contracts, at which point it could refuse to issue the leases if it decides the contracts were unlawfully issued, or pose too great a threat to the environment.
Drilling in the ANWR has been a hot-button political issue for years. The oil-rich area is the largest national wildlife refuge in the United States, and is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, including tens of thousands of migrating caribou, waterfowl, and the world’s remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears. It’s also the ancestral home of the indigenous Gwich’in people, who have expressed their opposition to the project. “Any company thinking about participating in this corrupt process should know that they will have to answer to the Gwich’in people and the millions of Americans who stand with us. We have been protecting this place forever,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.
Those who support drilling the ANWR (and specifically the companies that stand to profit from exploiting it) argue that it would be a financial boon to the region. In a statement, American Petroleum Institute called the administration’s announcement “long overdue,” and said that it will “create good-paying jobs and provide a new revenue stream for the state — which is why a majority of Alaskans support it.”
Critics, however, say that drilling could do irreparable harm to the people and wildlife that live in the area, and permanently damage a rare, pristine national habitat.
“This lease sale is one more box the Trump administration is trying to check off for its oil-industry allies before vacating the White House in January,” Adam Kolton, the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “It is disappointing that this administration until the very end has maintained such low regard for America’s public lands, or the wildlife and Indigenous communities that depend on them.”
Even if the lease sales are able to go through, it’s unclear how many oil and gas companies will want to take advantage of them. As the Times notes, it would be at least a decade before any oil could be extracted from the area, and what’s more, doing so may be seen as too much of a PR risk for companies. Already, environmental groups have successfully pressured large banks like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs to say that they will not finance projects in the area.