Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The Interior Department on Monday finalized plans to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, a pivotal — but hardly the final — step in a decades-long battle over the ecologically sensitive region thought to hold huge oil deposits.

The big picture: Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign said he would look to prevent drilling if elected. "His plan released last year made clear that he will permanently protect ANWR and other areas impacted by President Trump's attacks on federal lands and waters," the campaign said.

  • But The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news, points out that the decision makes it "difficult to unwind the decision should Democrats recapture the White House in November."
  • The final "record of decision" paves the way for selling drilling leases in the refuge's 1.6 million acre coastal plan, a step enabled by the GOP's 2017 legislation that ended longstanding restrictions.

What's next: Actual oil-and-gas production is expected to be years from commencing, perhaps a decade, but earlier steps in the development process would begin sooner if leasing proceeds.

  • The late 2017 law called for lease sales to begin within four years. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt declined to offer specific timing but told reporters that a sale could occur this year. "I am confident that we can certainly move forward quite promptly," he said.

The other side: Environmentalists and Democrats have long opposed drilling in ANWR, calling it a risk to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife. Groups quickly pledged legal battles to thwart development.

  • "The Trump administration’s so-called review process for their shameless sell-off of the Arctic Refuge has been a sham from the start. We’ll see them in court," said the Sierra Club's Lena Moffitt in a statement.
  • The administration is looking to "liquidate our nation’s last great wilderness, putting at risk the indigenous peoples and iconic wildlife that depend on it," said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League.
  • Bernhardt, while declining to outright predict what the courts might do, told reporters on a call this morning that "I would not be going forward if I was not very comfortable" with how the agency crafted the plans.

The intrigue: Another question is the degree of industry interest in the region.

  • Some of the world's largest companies have ruled out seeking leases there, and several major banks have said they would not finance development.
  • However, it's likely to be of interest to independent producers with operations in the state.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comment from the Biden campaign.

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Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 8, 2020 - Energy & Environment

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