Not Waiting for Public Comment, Trump Administration Schedules Lease Sale for Arctic Wildlife Refuge

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Even in the final weeks of his administration, President Donald Trump is trying to make good on his early promise to bring oil development to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not bothering to wait for the public comments that are customary before such a move. 

The Bureau of Land Management announced on Thursday that the administration plans to hold an oil leasing sale for the refuge on Jan. 6. This is far sooner than environmental organizations expected, and the announcement met with immediate criticism from groups that have been fighting to keep drilling out of what is known as the "crown jewel" of the nation's wildlife refuge system.

Just over two weeks ago, the Bureau of Land Management issued a "call for nominations," asking oil companies to let them know which tracts of the refuge they might want to drill on. That process typically involves a 30-day public comment period, and is usually followed by a period of analysis—often several weeks—in which the bureau decides what tracts to offer up. Based on that timeline, it seemed that the earliest a lease sale could happen would be a few days before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. 

"This timing is highly unusual and breaks with protocol," said Kristin Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Though Biden has said that protecting the refuge from drilling is a priority, once the leases are sold, the process of getting them back is complicated. That may be one reason the administration is rushing to get them sold before Trump's term ends.

"This is a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to give one last handout to the fossil fuel industry on his way out the door, at the expense of our public lands and our climate," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. 

The land that is being made available for leasing has been fought over for decades. The coastal plain of the Arctic refuge is a 1.5 million-acre swath of land that covers the northeastern corner of the Alaskan Arctic shore. It is home to countless species, including the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation of polar bears, which has dwindling numbers, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is sacred to the native Gwich'in people.

The Trump administration's 2017 tax bill opened the coastal plain for the first time, by mandating that a lease sale be held there in order to create revenue for the federal budget. Until that moment, the coastal plain—like the rest of the 19 million-acre refuge—was off limits. 

Environmental groups and the Gwich'in Steering Committee have sued the Trump administration, claiming that it failed to adequately address risks to polar bears and the environment in its assessment of drilling on the coastal plain. More lawsuits are likely to be filed, in light of the announced lease sale.

"Today we put the oil industry on notice. Any oil companies that bid on lease sales for the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should brace themselves for an uphill legal battle fraught with high costs and reputational risks," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

On top of the legal threat, with just a month to go before the lease sale, it's unclear whether oil companies in fact have an interest in drilling in the refuge. And those that are interested may face an uphill battle, regardless.

Last week, Bank of America became the latest major U.S. bank—along with Wells Fargo, Citi, Morgan Stanely, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase—to say it would not fund projects to drill in the Arctic. Several large international banks have made the same pledge.

Earlier this week, the Gwich'in Steering Committee and a group of Indigenous and conservation organizations and investors sent a letter to international insurance companies taking the issue  a step further. The letter asks companies to pledge not to insure or invest in oil and gas development projects in the refuge, or in companies engaged in such projects.

"The Trump Administration's plan to auction off our sacred lands in the Arctic refuge for oil drilling disrespects our human rights, ignores public opinion and denies the crisis of climate change," said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee. "The banking industry already sent a loud, clear message to oil companies. Now it's up to insurers to say no to drilling in the Arctic refuge. It's too much of a risk, especially with Alaska melting three times the rate as the rest of the world."

Typically, during the public comment period, interested parties would submit their comments online, via the website Regulations.gov. That allows the public to view the comments as they come in, said Monsell. 

But halfway through the comment period for the Arctic refuge call for nominations, environmental groups find themselves in the unusual position of not knowing what comments are being submitted, because the Interior Department has said that comments must be sent via mail or hand-delivered.

"I think it's perhaps to make this process less transparent," said Monsell.

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on why it is not using Regulations.gov or why it did not wait for the end of the public comment period prior to announcing the lease sale.

The announcement of the lease sale comes almost exactly 60 years after President Dwight Eisenhower established the Arctic refuge. The timing "symbolizes the degree to which the president has taken a wrecking ball to decades of bipartisan conservation support," said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

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