Nov 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The fast phase of the slow Arctic drilling fight

Beaufort Sea in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo: Patrick Endres/Corbis Documentary via Getty Images

Beaufort Sea in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo: Patrick Endres/Corbis Documentary via Getty Images

The Interior Department on Tuesday is publishing a formal solicitation for tracts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to lease for oil drilling.

Driving the news: The bureaucratic timelines — starting with a 30-day comment period — mean that an actual auction of drilling rights could occur just a few days before President-elect Biden's inauguration.

Why it matters: Completing a sale would create more facts on the ground and make it more difficult for Biden, who opposes drilling in the Alaskan preserve, to thwart the effort.

The big picture: Lease sales are required under a 2017 GOP-crafted bill that authorized leasing after a decadeslong battle over the region.

  • But as we've reported here, Biden has several levers he can pull to slow down the process, even though his efforts would be challenged in court.

What they're saying: A ClearView Energy Partners note points out that slowing things down — via steps like new climate reviews of permitting, to name just one — could effectively be a lasting win for opponents.

Between the lines: That has a lot to do with where things stand with oil markets. Per ClearView...

  • "[W]e would ... contend that 'slow' can function much like 'no' on a present-value basis, particularly during an era of low demand and high investor expectations for capital discipline."
  • "Thus, for the Biden Administration, a series of slow losses — and all the uncertainty that repeated slow-walking and court proceedings might create — could be tantamount to a win (big spenders have left the Arctic empty-handed in the past)."
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