The Interior Department could hold a sale of oil and gas leases in ANWR by the end of the year, Secretary David Bernhardt said on a conference call with reporters.
A Republican-passed tax bill in 2017 opened the area to oil and gas leasing, a key pillar of US President Donald Trump’s agenda to expand fossil fuel production. However, lease sales in the state have been weak for most of the last decade, and statewide production has dropped steadily for the past 30 years.
If found, oil production could begin in ANWR in about eight years, Mr Bernhardt said, with activity lasting about 50 years.
The 7.7 million hectares refuge is home to wildlife populations including Porcupine caribou and polar bears and has been off-limits to drilling for decades. Several big US banks have said recently they will not finance oil and gas projects in the Arctic region.
Source: US Fish And Wildlife Service AP
The sloping terrain and lack of water makes ANWR less advantageous for drilling activity than the National Petroleum Reserve, or NPR-A, which occupies the westernmost part of the North Slope, scientists have said.
The Gwich’in Steering Committee, which represents tribes that depend on the caribou for subsistence, tweeted that “the fight to protect the calving grounds of the porcupine caribou is not over.”
ANWR has been tested only once for the potential to extract fossil fuels. Mr Bernhardt said companies would bid on leases despite a lack of seismic testing that is a precursor to drilling. A year-end sale could thwart subsequent efforts by a potential Democratic administration in 2021 to stop drilling in ANWR.
“I’m not really driven by the political dynamics” of the November 3 presidential election, Mr Bernhardt said.
Polls show President Trump trailing Democrat challenger Joe Biden in the polls.
Environmental group Earthjustice quickly promised to launch a legal challenge.
Asked about the possibility of lawsuits, Bernhardt said he was “very comfortable with the lines that we drew in this case.”
Alaskan oil production has dwindled in the last three decades. The state currently produces roughly 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil, down from more than 2 million bpd in 1988, according to US Energy Department figures.