WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Monday finalized its plan to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, setting the stage for what is expected to be a fierce legal battle over the fate of a vast, remote Alaska habitat.
The Interior Department said it had completed its required reviews, clearing the way for the government to auction off leases later this year to companies interested in drilling inside the refuge’s coastal plain, which is believed to sit atop enough oil to fill billions of barrels but is prized by environmentalists for its pristine landscapes and wildlife.
Companies that bought leases could begin the process of exploring for oil and gas, although actual production would still require additional permitting and is unlikely to occur for at least a decade, if at all.
Drilling opponents are expected to file lawsuits to try to delay or block the leasing plan. Environmental groups have already been arguing that the Interior Department failed to adequately consider the effects that oil and gas development in the region could have on climate change and local wildlife such as caribou and polar bears.
“We’re planning to send a strong message to any company interested in bidding that there’s enormous uncertainty here that should cause them to stay away,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, speaking last year. “We are committed to fighting this at every step of the way.”
The administration’s push to open up the refuge has been backed by Republicans in Congress and lawmakers in Alaska, who have said that drilling could provide much-needed jobs and revenue for the state, where oil production has declined since the 1980s.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. The fight over drilling centers on 1.5 million acres in the refuge’s coastal plain, known as the 1002 area, which is believed to contain the largest onshore reserves of oil in North America that remain untapped. The Trump administration has sought to allow development as part of its push for more commercial activity on federal lands.
Opponents say that opening the refuge to drilling would be a step backward at a time when the world should be reducing fossil fuel use to address global warming. They also say drilling could harm vulnerable wildlife in the area, including polar bears, which are already struggling because of climate change, and migrating herds of caribou that use the coastal plain as a calving area.
For decades, Democrats in Congress blocked proposals to open the refuge. But in 2017 the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress included a section in a tax bill authorizing the Interior Department to establish a plan to sell leases in the coastal plain. Under the law, the agency must conduct at least two lease sales of 400,000 acres each by the end of 2024.
Henry Fountain contributed reporting.
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