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Trump Administration Moves To Sell Drilling Rights To Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The battle over opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling has gone on for decades. Now the Trump administration is closer to auctioning off drilling rights in one of America's most remote stretches of wilderness before President-elect Biden takes office. Tegan Hanlon joins us. She's a reporter for Alaska Public Media in Anchorage. Tegan, thanks so much for being with us.

TEGAN HANLON, BYLINE: Hey, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And let's get a picture of this potential drilling field that we're talking about.

HANLON: Sure. So the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is in northeast Alaska, and it's massive and really remote. It's sometimes described as untouched or pristine wilderness. And the area in the refuge that the government wants to have a lease sale is called the Coastal Plain. It makes up just about 8% of the refuge but still covers an area about the size of Delaware, so about 1.5 million acres. The Coastal Plain is thought to hold billions of barrels of oil, but it's also home to caribou, polar bears and other wildlife.

SIMON: How did circumstances get so close to selling oil and gas leases for the Coastal Plain? Because this has been going on for decades.

HANLON: Yeah, it has been fought over for about 40 years, and then this dramatic shift happened in 2017 when a Republican-led Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which included a provision that opened the Coastal Plain to drilling and mandated two lease sales in the Coastal Plain within seven years, with that first one to be held by the end of 2021. So the Trump administration started the steps to get to a lease sale, including an environmental review, public comment, but it's been controversial every step of the way. Conservation groups have called it rushed and flawed. And then a big development happened almost two weeks ago. This call for nominations launched, which is a 30-day window when oil and gas companies and other interested parties can tell the government, confidentially, which tracts of land they'd like included in a lease sale

SIMON: Any date of sale announced?

HANLON: No, not yet.

SIMON: And so what happens now?

HANLON: So that call for nominations got a lot of attention because it's the last major step before announcing the date of a sale. So the way the timelines work, the call for nominations goes until mid-December, and then the federal government has to give 30-days notice of a lease sale. So there is a real possibility that the Trump administration could squeeze in a lease sale in its final days, especially since this administration has really pushed to unlock the Coastal Plain, saying it advances the administration's policy of energy independence.

SIMON: President-elect Biden, we know, is opposed to drilling in the refuge. If a sale takes place before he's sworn in, is there anything he can do about it?

HANLON: It's believed he could do a few things. It typically takes a while to finalize leases after the sale, usually several months. So if that's the case and it spills over into Biden's presidency, his administration could potentially intervene there. But if leases are finalized before Biden takes office, he could also potentially intervene in the permitting process, stalling them or making it so onerous that companies decide to invest elsewhere.

SIMON: Help us understand, Tegan, who is in favor of drilling in the refuge and who is not.

HANLON: Sure. So Alaska's all-Republican congressional delegation has pushed for opening up the Coastal Plain to drilling, and they're celebrating the news that the government is moving closer to a lease sale, alongside oil and gas industry trade groups. And it's important to note that the state of Alaska doesn't have a state income tax or state sales tax, and a big chunk of government services are funded by oil revenue. So there are Alaskans who support more oil and gas development in the state as a way to more jobs, more revenue, good for the economy. And on the other side, there's others, including environmental groups here, who strongly oppose development in the refuge and who have already filed lawsuits in court and say it will cause irreparable harm to the land and the climate. Some of the most vocal opponents are the Gwich'in, an indigenous group whose members harvest caribou that move through the refuge.

SIMON: Tegan Hanlan with Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, thanks so much for being with us.

HANLON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.