The Trump administration sold off drilling rights to oil and gas companies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time ever on Wednesday, a move that had led to multiple legal battles from environmental and indigenous groups, along with significant public outcry.
The auction was labelled as an “epic failure” by critics after major oil companies avoided the sale and a state corporation in Alaska emerged as the main bidder.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had offered ten-year leases on 22 tracts covering about 1,563 square miles (4,048 sq km) in the coastal plain, which accounts for about 5 per cent of the refuge’s area. The agency said it was acting in accord with a law passed in 2017 that called for lease sales.
Only half the tracts attracted bids on Wednesday, totaling just more than $14 million. This was well below the $1.8 billion (or less than 1 per cent) in government revenue promised by drilling proponents, said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
Mr Kolton said: “This lease sale was an epic failure for the Trump administration and the Alaska congressional delegation. After years of promising a revenue and jobs bonanza they ended up throwing a party for themselves, with the state being one of the only bidders.
“We have long known that the American people don’t want drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the Gwich’in people don’t want it, and now we know the oil industry doesn’t want it either.”
“Today’s results reflect industry’s and the State’s commitment to responsible oil and gas development on the North Slope of Alaska,” said BLM Alaska state director Chad Padgett on Wednesday.
“Recent assessments show that the North Slope of Alaska will remain an important asset in meeting the energy needs of our nation.”
The BLM sale went ahead after a judge in Alaska found in favour of the federal government at the 11th hour and against environmental groups who had requested a preliminary injunction, saying the sale would lead to “irreparable harm” in the wilderness area.
The Arctic wildlife refuge 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 indigenous Gwich’in people consider the rugged and remote area off the Beaufort Sea as sacred and have cited concerns for the porcupine caribou herd on which they rely for subsistence. The Gwich’in Steering Committee have been battling to protect the region from oil and gas companies for decades.
Supporters of drilling have viewed development as a way to bolster oil production, generate revenue and create or sustain jobs.
A state corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, was the main bidder on the leases. Its executive director, Alan Weitzner said in acquiring nine tracts, “Alaska preserves the right to responsibly develop its natural resources” AP reported.
Alaska’s Governor Mike Dunleavy on Twitter, called the lease sale “historic for Alaska and tremendous for America.”
The lease sales is a victory for the outgoing administration which has been racing to complete rollbacks of climate and environmental protections, a hallmark of Mr Trump’s time in office.
President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated on 20 January, has said he is against drilling in the Arctic refuge. However it will be extremely difficult for his administration to reverse formally-issued oil leases.
Conservation groups described the sale as a last-minute push by the administration to help secure drilling rights for oil companies before Mr Trump leaves office in two weeks.
Legal action was brought by the National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council, and represented by environmental attorneys with Earthjustice.
Kate Glover, staff attorney with Earthjustice, said during an online court hearing on Monday that drilling in the ANWR would cause “irreparable harm”, citing seismic activity and tracks which would blight the land.
Federal attorneys defended Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others that intervened in the case, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
“There is great interest in controversy over the ANWR drilling program,” one government lawyer said.
He called the environmentalists’ argument “hypothetical and speculative”, adding that issuing leases did not mean that environmental harm was imminent in the ANWR.
Ms Glover responded that the harm is done when BLM commits to issuing a lease and that those decisions are hard to undo, highlighting the agency’s rush to complete the lease sales since Mr Trump lost the election.
The case is one of four lawsuits from conservationists, Alaska tribal entities and 15 state governments. The lawsuits seek to halt drilling in the refuge after the Republican-led Congress in 2017 approved the lease sale.
Monday’s arguments only covered the potential issuing of leases.
AP contributed to this report. This article has been updated to include responses