Environment & Health

The Trump Administration Rushes to Sell Leases in the Arctic Refuge, But How Much Oil Is There?

The Interior Department won't release geologic information, raising questions about petroleum potential.
Jo Goldman/USFWS via Wikimedia Commons

The Trump administration is sparing nothing in its effort to auction off leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before the January 20 inauguration. A week and a half after the election, while the president was busy trying to overturn the results, the Department of the Interior issued a call for oil-lease nominations, which allows companies to choose parcels of land to bid on. Then, on December 2, well before the 30-day nomination period had closed, Interior officials announced that a sale would take place just two weeks before Biden’s inauguration.

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But a cloud of uncertainty looms over the entire effort to begin oil and gas extraction in the refuge. The Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and the Gwich’in Steering Committee have filed lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the environmental review process. The incoming Biden administration has vowed to protect the refuge and could delay or possibly revoke any leases that are issued. Under pressure from the Sierra Club and other groups, major banks in the US, Canada, and Europe have pledged not to finance projects in the Arctic—an ecologically fragile region that is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet—including the wildlife refuge.

The biggest unknown, though, is whether the oil industry still has much interest in what would be a very costly and controversial effort to drill for oil in one of the last great wilderness areas in the United States. This isn’t just a matter of companies keeping quiet about their intentions: Because there’s so little publicly available data to evaluate the coastal plain’s resource potential, it’s unclear whether drilling in the refuge makes economic sense at all.

The only seismic surveys ever done in the refuge were carried out in the mid-1980s using technology that is now obsolete. The results of the lone test well drilled on refuge lands around the same time are a closely guarded secret, but a 2019 New York Times story suggested that they were disappointing. When the Trump administration placed Alaska at the center of its “energy dominance” agenda, it invested heavily in updating resource assessments of the entire North Slope region. In May 2017, then–interior secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the US Geological Survey to carry out new studies of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA; located west of the existing petroleum hub of Prudhoe Bay) and the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.

“I'm a geologist,” Zinke said when he signed the secretarial order in Anchorage. “Science is a wonderful thing: It helps us understand what is going on deep below the surface of the earth. We need to use science to update our understanding of the … Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

  • A cloud of uncertainty looms over the entire effort to begin oil and gas extraction in the refuge.

First, Interior spent close to $1 million to have the original 2D seismic data of the refuge reprocessed, believing that a favorable assessment could increase interest in a lease sale, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In addition to acquiring higher-resolution data, the USGS also carried out fieldwork in the refuge, sampling rock outcroppings and oil seeps in areas believed to have high hydrocarbon potential. By the end of Trump’s first year in office, the agency was poised to complete the first new assessment of the refuge’s coastal plain in over 20 years—research that would enhance the public’s understanding of the geology of the region and also provide industry with a better sense of where the most promising oil and gas reserves may lie.

But in early 2018, Interior officials abruptly canceled the coastal plain assessment. USGS has been sitting on the reprocessed seismic data ever since. Senior officials at Interior have refused to let USGS share the data with anyone—including the Bureau of Land Management, which is overseeing the leasing program and drafted the environmental impact statement.

This isn’t the first time that science has been sidelined or suppressed in the rush to open the refuge to drilling. During the environmental review process for seismic surveys of the refuge in 2018, the findings of career BLM officials were altered to minimize potential impacts to polar bears and Native communities. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the 19.3-million-acre refuge and whose scientists have studied it for decades, has been largely shut out of the review process.

Resource assessments have also been highly politicized under the Trump administration. In late 2017, the head of the USGS energy and minerals program resigned in protest after then–deputy secretary David Bernhard pressured the agency to turn over prepublication data from a forthcoming assessment of the NPRA, in violation of USGS fundamental science practices. When the assessment was released, DOI boasted that it showed a “HUGE increase” in oil and gas potential and that the “path to American energy dominance starts in Alaska.”

It’s impossible to know if the coastal plain assessment based on the reprocessed seismic data would have changed the outlook of the lease sale or the environmental impact statement itself. As part of the environmental review process, BLM comes up with “reasonably foreseeable” development scenarios that are based in part on USGS estimates. David Houseknecht, a senior USGS research geologist who heads up the Alaska program, said that the agency had analyzed about 50 percent of the data but that he was unable to comment on the findings.

About the reporter

Adam Federman

Adam Federman

Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations.

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