On Monday, the Trump administration finalized its plans to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska—the largest remaining stretch of protected wilderness in the U.S.—to oil and gas drilling, reports The New York Times. This plan will overturn over 50 years of protection for this area. The proposed site, which is projected to yield billions of barrels of oil, is widely revered by environmentalists for its pristine remote beauty and diverse wildlife.
The Interior Department stated that it has finally finished all of the required reviews of the area, and it would begin preparations to auction off leases to interested parties. Though a date has not been set for the auctions to begin, the Times reports Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s admission that he believes, “there could be a lease sale by the end of the year.”
This roughly 1.6 million-acre coastal plain is home to polar bears, caribou, Arctic foxes, and over 200 species of birds, and it was originally tagged by Congress for drilling back in 1980—but had been deemed off-limits for decades, according to the L.A. Times. “The establishment of this program is a major milestone,” Bernhardt stated.
The L.A. Times reports that the Interior Department did acknowledge that its plans would largely affect the wildlife habitat in the area. In an environmental analysis last year, the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management stated, “The potential for injury or mortality could be high when developing new oil and gas projects in polar bear habitat.”
It remains to be seen which companies will participate in the auction for the land leases, as the potential for statewide ridicule and backlash from the public and conservationists seems imminent. According to The Washington Post, a poll taken by Yale and George Mason universities in April found that 33 percent of registered voters backed the drilling plans, and 67 percent were opposed to it.
While the government expects the area to be sitting atop 11 billion gallons of recoverable oil, a seismic survey has not been conducted since the 1980s, so the current oil estimate is still unclear. However, Bernhardt believes that this will not impact the bidding process, according to the Post, as he stated, “I think a lot of people will bid for leases without seismic data.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System was founded in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt in order to protect wild places in the United States. This particular refuge first became a federally protected area of Alaska in 1960—an order put forth under the Eisenhower administration. It’s now home to over 270 different species of animals, reports the Post. Alaska Natives and environmentalists have expressed their plans to diligently fight this drilling plan in court.