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.
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.