Polar bear in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Trump administration began auctioning off development rights to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this week, putting polar bears in Alaska at risk. Image via Shutterstock.

President-elect Joe Biden vowed to oppose oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the countdown to inauguration, Trump’s White House is doing all it can to ensure it happens.

The Trump administration began auctioning off development rights to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this week in a rush to open the area up to oil drilling before Inauguration Day, the Washington Post reports. The push could complicate the success of President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for climate protections—though it may not be an easy sell even to big energy firms. 

The Arctic refuge’s coastal plain is about 1.6 million acres—a region about the size of Delaware and home to more than 270 wildlife species, including the world’s remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears. In 2017, after nearly 40 years of protection, a Republican-led Congress pushed through legislation to allow lease sales in the coastal section of the Arctic refuge, the first mandated by the end of 2021. 

Tuesday’s “call for nominations” allows 30 days for companies to decide which tracts of land they may want to bid on. Once that’s decided, the agency could publish a lease sale notice, which must be published another 30 days before an auction is held. This could leave just enough time for the Bureau of Land Management to finalize a lease sale before Biden takes office, and it would be all but impossible to revoke.

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The Gwich’in, Alaska Natives—whose cultural practices and diet are based around migrating caribou—oppose the proposal’s potential environmental impact and say the sale violates federal law.

“We have lived and thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a press release. The “decision to violate lands sacred to my people and essential to the health of the Porcupine caribou herd is an attack on our rights, our culture and our way of life.”

Demientieff filed suit in August with a dozen other Alaskan and Canadian environmental organizations, including the Alaska Wilderness League, arguing the program’s environmental impact review was rushed and that the government is bypassing the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Wilderness Act.

“The scheme to drill this national treasure has always been morally wrong, but the process the Trump administration is utilizing to get development steamrolling ahead is flat out illegal,” said Adam Kolton, another of the suit’s plaintiffs. “We will not stand idly by while Trump’s Interior Department seeks to auction off the wildest place left in America to the highest bidder.”

However, even supporters of the plan have acknowledged challenges to moving forward. It’s costly to set up infrastructure for drilling in this remote area, and low oil prices, public backlash, and potential litigation of the kind that paralyzed the Keystone XL pipeline are major detractors.

“The real trick is doing the math around the marginal cost of producing a barrel of oil in that area of the world,” Andy Mack, a former commissioner with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources who backed the opening, told NPR.

If drilling leases are not issued before Biden takes office, the federal law requiring a lease sale by the end of 2021 would still be in effect, but according to Mack, the next administration could strategically block it.

“What they would try to do is make it so difficult and so onerous to get the array of permits,” he said, “that the companies just say, ‘Well, we’re not going to spend 10 years just trying to get a simple permit, we’re going to put our money and our investment elsewhere.'”

The Trump administration is pushing to roll back environmental protections on several other fronts as well, including plans to expose most of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to drilling and narrowing the criteria of what constitutes critical habitat for endangered species. Energy Department officials are weighing lowering energy-efficiency requirements for appliances before Inauguration Day.