Trump agency takes major step toward Arctic refuge oil drilling

The Trump administration outlined plans for selling drilling rights on every acre of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, despite acknowledging potential oil spills and impacts to polar bear and caribou that roam through the region.

The Interior Department’s draft environmental impact statement, to be published on Thursday, is a milestone in the administration’s push to sell drilling rights in the refuge’s coastal plain as soon as 2019.

Environmentalists blasted the move, saying the analysis was rushed by the Trump administration in its bid to jump-start drilling, resulting in a report that gave short shrift to the potentially lethal consequences of oil development on wildlife.

In each case, said Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash, the leasing options include protections for the primary calving habitat of the porcupine caribou, a wide-roaming species whose conservation is co-managed by Canada and the U.S.

“In their rush to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at all costs,” the Trump administration “is sidelining science, public input and the health of polar bears, caribou, and other wildlife,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.

“An energy-dominant America starts with an energy-dominant Alaska,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who’s resigning from his post at year-end. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management said its first sale would make at least 400,000 acres available for oil drilling.

That third, more restrictive option would keep at least 476,600 acres of porcupine caribou herd calving habitat off limits, but still make 66 percent of the coastal plain available for oil and gas development.

The inclusion in the analysis of an option for no oil and gas leasing is essentially a pro forma step: the government is required to hold at least two auctions of oil and gas leases in the 1.6-million-acre (647,000 hectare) coastal plain within a decade under a law Congress passed a year ago.

Consideration of that proposal has slowed amid concerns about potential harm to polar bears, which are listed as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act and would be hidden in snow-covered dens when the work is conducted.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management still must conduct environmental reviews of the activity, and expected lawsuits may slow the government’s timeline.All of the government’s plans to allow leasing would affect polar bears in the region.

And conservationists said the analysis overlooks potential harm to the animals, including the risk that obscured dens are crushed by equipment, killing the bears inside.

Opponents argue drilling threatens to forever alter the pristine wilderness populated with arctic foxes, polar bears, caribou herds, migratory birds and other species.

“The Arctic refuge is an amazing, beautiful, wild landscape” that’s home to an array of special animals, said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of The Wilderness Society. In the administration’s zeal to expand oil drilling, “they are reaching into a treasured, iconic wilderness refuge.”

Any oil resources on the coastal plain would be relatively expensive to extract and bring to market, requiring the construction of new pipelines and other infrastructure, though companies could take advantage of existing infrastructure on Alaska’s North Slope.

ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc all have operations in the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil field. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that ANWR’s coastal plain might hold between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude.

“There aren’t very many basins in the planet where we have a very high degree of confidence that there’s significant hydrocarbons that haven’t been explored yet,” Balash said.

“There’s going to be, we expect, significant industry interest in being a part of finding out what’s there and having a place in line for producing it.” After oil companies buy leases in the region, any future drilling efforts would require separate permits and authorizations that also can be challenged in court.

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