Arctic National Wildlife Refuge caribou aerial

Trump administration tries to sell off Arctic wildlife refuge in its final days

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge likely has billions of gallons of oil under it and for decades has been one of the most high-profile environmental battles. Despite opposition from conservationists and Indigenous peoples, a judge allowed the Trump administration to proceed with a Jan. 6 auction of oil and gas drilling leases in the refuge.

Living on Earth

This undated aerial file photo provided by US Fish and Wildlife Service shows a herd of caribou on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The refuge takes up an area the size of West Virginia and Connecticut combined in the northeast corner of Alaska.

US Fish and Wildlife Service/File/AP

The fight to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling has raged for decades. In Trump's final days, despite opposition from conservationists and native peoples, a judge allowed the Trump administration to proceed with a Jan. 6 auction of oil and gas drilling leases in the refuge.

Supporters of oil drilling, especially Alaskan Republicans, claim opening ANWR is key to revenue and job creation. In 2017, the Alaska congressional delegation was able to get a sale of oil leases into the budget resolution bill, claiming it would generate $1 billion of revenue for the government.

RelatedDrilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is more likely now than ever before

ANWR is a crucial wildlife habitat and, for the Gwich’in Indigenous peoples, it’s known as “sacred land where life begins.” Several conservation and Indigenous groups sued the Trump administration to try to block oil leasing but, despite the lawsuits, the Bureau of Land Management scheduled ANWR lease sales for Jan. 6, 2020. And on Jan. 5, US District Court Judge Sharon Gleason denied request for an injunction that would have delayed the bidding process until after president Trump leaves office.

According to Anchorage Daily News Reporter Alex DeMarban, Gleason didn’t focus on arguments conservation groups had made regarding improper environmental review. Instead, DeMarban says, she noted that the conservation groups did not claim that issuance of the leases would cause “immediate and irreparable harm,” which was something she needed to see in order to immediately halt the them.

Judge Gleason said she still has time to make a decision “before any irreparable harm is done,” DeMarban reports. “She also said that that the seismic exploration program isn't even approved yet, so there's nothing she can rule on there. But she invited the conservation groups to try again if they want to stop that, once it is approved, and she would consider that request. So it's not an end to the case.”

The lease sales began the day after Judge Gleason gave her ruling. Twenty-two tracts of land were available for lease, but only half of them were purchased and none of the big oil companies put in a bid.

This lack of interest is likely due to several factors. First, half a dozen financial institutions, including Bank of America, bowed to pressure from conservation groups and pledged not to fund any Arctic drilling. That means extraction companies would mostly have to invest their own money in the project. Second, the price of a barrel of oil is quite low right now, so there’s little economic incentive for big companies to take on drilling in a remote, controversial region like ANWR.

Two small companies bought one parcel each: Regenerate Alaska, which is an affiliate of an Australian oil company, and Knick Arm Services, which appears to be an LLC based in Alaska, but very little information is available about it.

The biggest bidder was the Alaskan state itself. The government relies heavily on extraction for both revenue and jobs. So, the state-owned Alaska Economic Corporation bought the rights to nine parcels of land, totaling roughly half a million acres. They paid the minimum of $25 per acre, but will get half of that money back as part of the sale.

RelatedCan Alaska rely on oil and address climate change? State officials are about to find out.

President Trump made opening ANWR a key part of his plan for expanding domestic oil production, and the administration hoped the sale would bring in about $1 billion in revenue, Instead, it totaled less than $15 million.

President-elect Biden has said he opposes drilling in the Arctic and is against allowing new leases on any public land. If the ANWR sales aren’t finalized by Inauguration Day, it’s possible the new administration could block them. Congress could also pursue a more long-lasting solution and reverse the 2017 law that allowed the sale to move forward to begin with and then work to pass legislation to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This article is based on a report by Steve Curwood and Bobby Bascomb that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.