Interior moves ahead with ANWR drilling plans

By Laura Bies

The administration is moving forward with plans to offer leases for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Danielle Brigida/USFWS

The Bureau of Land Management is calling for the oil and gas industry to nominate tracts of land along the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that could be offered in an upcoming lease sale. Nominations are due by Dec. 17 and will be followed by a 30-day notice of sale.

The BLM is also looking for comments regarding which tracts are of particular importance and should receive additional analysis or if any tracts should be reduced in size.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain stretches 1.6 million acres along the edge of the 19.6 million-acre refuge and is an ecologically sensitive area, home to a wide variety of wildlife, including polar bears (Ursus maritimus), numerous bird species and caribou (Rangifer tarandus). This area, along with Ivvavik National Park in Canada, serves as the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, the largest herd in the refuge and one of the largest in North America.

After decades of being closed to development, the coastal plain of the refuge was most recently made available for leasing through the 2017 tax bill, via a provision championed by Alaskan members of Congress. That provisions calls for two lease sales of at least 400,000 acres within 10 years. The first sale would take place within four years of the bill’s passage.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement for drilling in the refuge, opening 1.6 million acres to development, was published on Sept. 12. In order to complete a lease sale before the transition to a Biden administration, the BLM would have to announce a sale by the first week of December.

Drilling in the refuge has met opposition from conservation groups, the Canadian government, and several First Nations.

The administration has also announced an upcoming sale of leases of development rights covering 383 parcels in Wyoming. The sale, proposed for March 2021, includes 141 parcels that encompass over 244,000 acres of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) habitat.

Critics of the sale say it violates greater sage-grouse conservation plans finalized in 2015. Although the current administration attempted to update those plans, the revisions were struck down in court last year. The proposed sale will likely also face legal challenges, and it could also be halted or temporarily paused when the Biden administration takes office in January.

An environmental assessment released by the BLM indicates that the lease proposal would include restrictions preventing surface occupancy in some areas, as well as timing restrictions to reduce impacts on breeding and chick rearing season. Comments will be accepted on the assessment until Dec. 30.

The Wildlife Society recognizes energy development is an integral part of modern society, but seeks to minimize its impacts on wildlife. The Society’s position statement on energy development calls for minimizing and mitigating the impacts of energy development thorough natural resource inventories before energy development and cooperation between energy developers and natural resource agencies.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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