Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Is One Step Closer to Reality

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Polar bears are interesting members of the tundra ecosystem. Alan D. Wilson [CC by 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

The prospect of drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is looming ever closer with the Interior Department's release of its final environmental impact statement, which explains how and where oil companies can drill for oil.

The Interior Department could auction leases for the right to drill there by the end of 2019. The move lifts a nearly 40-year ban on drilling in the refuge.

The Secretary of the Interior, through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), will establish two area-wide leasing sales, not less than 400,000 acres each, along the Coastal Plain of ANWR. The move also authorizes up to 2,000 acres for surface facilities, according to the release. Exactly how much acreage will be up for lease has not yet been announced.

Alaska government representatives — including the governor, U.S. senators and several members of the U.S. House — applauded the progress. However, many conservation groups in Alaska and beyond oppose the plan, saying it's impossible to drill there without negative consequences for wildlife and the environment.

Interior Department officials said options in the plan would protect caribou — which use the area as a calving ground — polar bears and migratory birds, not to mention the native populations that depend on this wildlife.

"In no way can we argue that this is going to be protective of the wildlife there," Lois Epstein of the Wilderness Society in Anchorage told NPR in December when the draft proposal was made public. "The caribou that arrive there every summer after they've been calving are going to encounter enormous amounts of infrastructure. It's devastating."

ANWR landscape
Pools of tundra water just beginning to freeze for the winter in the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Troutnut/Shutterstock

The draft followed an eight-month review process by BLM to determine the environmental impact of leasing the land for drilling. The draft was the "personal responsibility" of Joe Balash, a top official at the Department of the Interior who has since resigned to work for a Papua New Guinea oil company in Alaska.

This review was set in motion after Congress voted in 2018 to allow drilling in ANWR.

Congress agreed the Department of the Interior could hold a lease sale of up to 800,00 acres of ANWR within the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the sale of land could generate almost $900 million for the federal government. This revenue is seen as vital because it would pay for tax cuts created by the Republicans' overhaul of the tax system.

When would drilling begin?

ANWR drilling press conference and protest
Native American leaders protest the prospect of drilling on the 58th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge outside the U.S. Capitol in December 2018. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Though it's much more likely now, drilling is unlikely for at least a decade.

"It's still an open question about whether drilling will ever happen there," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official. "It's hard to image that drilling will occur in the next 10 years — or ever."

The delay could be due to "required environmental scrutiny and permit reviews — and then the inevitable lawsuits from local communities and environmental groups opposed to any development in that rugged wilderness," point out Ari Natter and Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Bloomberg.

Plans to drill in ANWR have been a priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She says drilling will be boon to Alaska and the U.S., and that it will be done in a way that respects the environment.

"If we move forward with development, we will do it right. We will take care of our wildlife, our lands and our people," she said during a hearing of the committee.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) who is against the drilling, argues that "it turns this coastal plane and wildlife refuge into an oil field."

As Bloomberg pointed out in 2017, interest in drilling in ANWR may be not be particularly high given the costs involved in setting up operations in such a remote area. Still, provided decades-old projections are true, the lure of between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of oil may be too much for energy companies to ignore.