The Trump administration has moved to allow drilling in ecologically sensitive areas of the Arctic previously off limits to oil producers, in the latest move to scale back environmental oversight of the oil industry ahead of November’s election.
David Bernhardt, the secretary of the interior, on Monday signed off on an oil leasing programme for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), effectively opening up part of the 19.3m acre protected area in Alaska to drilling for the first time after decades of debate over its protected status.
The area is home to migrating birds, polar bears, caribou and other wildlife, with little human activity, and environmentalists have staunchly opposed efforts to open it up to drilling since it was established as a refuge in 1980. Monday’s decision puts into effect a 2017 law that authorised the development of a 1.56 million-acre chunk of the reserve known as the Coastal Plain.
“President Trump’s leadership brought more than three decades of inaction to an end when he signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, requiring these vast energy resources be developed contributing to America’s future economic prosperity and energy security,” said Mr Bernhardt.
The move is the latest example of the loosening of environmental controls by Donald Trump’s administration ahead of the presidential election, where candidates have offered starkly contrasting views about the future of American energy. Mr Trump last week announced the rollback of Obama-era methane regulations.
“Politically, leasing ANWR is points on the board for the Trump administration,” said Kevin Book, an analyst at Clearview Energy Partners in Washington DC. “Biden looks like he would play power politics, too, however. So if Democrats sweep in November, ANWR would be in the crosshairs. Federal powers over federal lands are vast.”
Under the Arctic development plan, the interior department intends to push ahead with two lease sales of 400,000 acres apiece — the first of which could be completed by the end of this year, it said.
Panned by environmentalists for the damage it would create to a sensitive area, they also criticised the encouragement of fossil fuels despite their role in climate change. “This is an egregious intrusion into the sacred lands of the Gwich’in and other Indigenous People,” said Gina McCarthy, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It threatens the heart of the largest pristine wildland left in America.
“The administration’s reckless, relentless boosting of the oil industry will irrevocably damage this cherished place and compound the global climate crisis.”
The move was welcomed by the oil industry, however. Frank Macchiarola, vice-president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum institute, a lobby group, said the announcement “follows a rigorous environmental review process confirming the oil and natural gas industry’s ability to develop responsibly in the designated areas”.
He added: “The industry has a well-established record of safe and environmentally responsible development of Alaska’s energy resources.”
Industry analysts question how much desire there will be among oil companies to explore in the area given the dearth of current exploration projects in the region in areas where it is already permissible.
“ANWR leasing will test industry willingness to commit capital in size when investors are asking for spending discipline and a fast cash turn,” said Mr Book. “Arctic development is neither of those things.”
Mr Bernhardt said he expected oil production in the area to begin in around eight years and that activity could continue for more than 50 years.
Lisa Murkowski, a Republican US senator representing Alaska, who has pushed for the region to be opened up to drilling, described the decision as “a capstone moment in our decades-long push to allow for the responsible development of a small part of [the area]”.
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