The Trump administration is racing against the clock to finalize leases for oil and gas drilling sites in the unspoiled Alaskan wilderness.
On Tuesday, a notice appeared in the Federal Register calling for the industry to submit proposals on where they would like to drill on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s (ANWR) 1.6 million-acre coastal plain.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the leases, asked for submissions on or before 17 December.
Although the president continues to claim without evidence that he has won a second term, his administration appears to be in a dash to the finish line to complete dozens of outstanding environmental rollbacks, along with expanding access for the fossil fuel industry.
In a statement to The Independent, a Department of Interior spokesperson said: “As part of the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act, Congress directed the Department to hold lease sales in the ANWR Coastal Plain, and we have taken a significant step in meeting our obligations by determining where and under what conditions the oil and gas development program will occur.”
President-elect Biden is firmly opposed to drilling in the ANWR. His campaign platform called for permanently protecting the refuge and “other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters”. Mr Biden has also promised to ban new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters.
Despite the president-elect’s plans to tackle the Trump rollbacks, jamming through last-minute regulations could slow the Biden team’s plans to ramp up climate and environmental policy right away.
And if Republicans retain control of the Senate following the two Georgia run-off elections in January, it is unlikely they would use the Congressional Review Act – which can repeal 11th hour regulations by the exiting administration – to find in Biden’s favour.
The ANWR is a breeding ground for endangered polar bears and home to grey wolves, musk oxen and caribou, along with migratory birds from around the world.
The Trump sell-off will also impact the indigenous Gwich’in people, who have cited concerns on the impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd on which they have relied for subsistence. The Gwich’in steering committee have been battling to protect the region from oil and gas companies for decades.
“The oil and gas lease sales on the Arctic Refuge demonstrate the Trump administration’s complete disregard for the human rights of the Gwich’in & Inupiat people and our ways of life that depend on the health of the Refuge’s coastal plain,” said Jody Potts (Han Gwich’in), Native Movement regional director.
“In the Arctic, our peoples are being heavily impacted by a climate crisis due to fossil fuel extraction, which we cannot afford to continue.”
Parcelling off America’s public lands for oil and gas drilling, along with mining and logging, has been a hallmark of the Trump era. As the window closes on Mr Trump’s sole term in office, his administration is rushing to complete energy deals and the last of more than 100 environmental rollbacks.
It remains to be seen how much appetite there is among oil companies for drilling in the remote wilderness. A number of large banks including TD Bank, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan Chase already have said they will not finance oil and gas activities in the Arctic region.
Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told AP: “Arctic Refuge drilling has never made sense from a climate change, human rights or wildlife protection perspective, and with continued volatility in oil markets and major U.S. and international banks unwilling to invest in Arctic oil, the economic argument no longer holds water either.”
Mr Kolton questioned whether the Trump administration, based on how the process normally works, would have time to hold a lease sale.
“So a new Biden administration could come in with tools at its disposal unwind this,” he said. “That said, we can’t take anything for granted.”
AP contributed to this article