In its final months, the Trump administration is making a last-ditch effort to bring oil drilling to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The U.S. Department of the Interior has invited oil companies to specify which parts of the refuge they’re hoping to exploit, with a view toward holding an auction before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
Home to hundreds of thousands of caribou, along with polar bears, wolves, musk ox, and an incredible array of migratory birds, the Arctic Refuge is among the planet’s last great wild spaces. Its Coastal Plain—which is directly targeted by the oil industry—is of critical importance to the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people. Strong majorities of Americans have opposed drilling these northern lands, which first received protection in 1960. Virtually every president since has attempted to leave his mark on the refuge—either by solidifying or ending its protections—and its fate remains in limbo.
President Trump seems to view drilling the Arctic Refuge more as a trophy than a policy goal. When the Republican-led Congress passed legislation opening the refuge to drilling in 2017, almost unbeknownst to Trump, the president bragged, “[The Arctic Refuge] is a big deal that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get done, and nobody could get done.” But it’s unclear whether Trump will get it done either.
His administration finalized its environmental review for an oil and gas program for the refuge in September 2019. At the time, the Interior Department projected its first lease sale to be completed by the end of that year. Thankfully, the Trump administration’s incompetence redounded to the benefit of the refuge’s species. When the COVID-19 crisis struck the following spring, the leasing plan was already several months behind schedule.
The Trump administration—against all indications—probably assumed it would have four more years to finish the process. Oops! Now, it’s frantically trying to complete a sale before its beautiful carriage turns into a pumpkin on Inauguration Day.
It’s worth noting that with oil prices historically low right now, auctioning land for oil drilling doesn’t even make financial sense. “You are selling in a down market,” Larry Persily, a retired Alaska journalist and former federal coordinator of the Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects, told the news outlet E&E. “It just doesn't make any sense. It's just politics.”
The Arctic Refuge has been caught up in “just politics” for decades. Here’s hoping that the clock strikes 12 on the Trump administration before the refuge turns into an oil field.