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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.

Go deeper

Murkowski: "It is time to begin the full and formal transition process"

Murkowski leaves the Senate Republicans lunch in September. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) tweeted Sunday, "It is time to begin the full and formal transition process." She called Trump's attempts to overturn President-elect Biden's win "inconsistent with our democratic process."

Why it matters: Only a handful of congressional Republicans have acknowledged Biden as president-elect as Trump and his campaign continue unsuccessful legal challenges in key swing states.

1 hour ago - World

HRW: Over 100 former Afghan security members dead or missing under Taliban rule

Members of the Taliban movement patrol Kabul's airport in September. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

The Taliban have "killed or forcibly disappeared" over 100 former members of Afghanistan's security forces since the group took power in August, a Human Rights Watch report published Tuesday found.

Why it matters: It means former military members and officials from the ousted government, activists and other Taliban critics are facing peril amid executions driven by revenge — despite Taliban promises of an "amnesty" with no retributions, notes the New York Times, which first reported the news.

2 hours ago - World

Barbados becomes a republic, replacing U.K. queen with president

Combination images of Dame Sandra Mason, president of Barbados, and Britain's Prince Charles at her swearing-in ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, late Monday.

Barbados officially became a republic at midnight local time after Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the Caribbean nation's first president in a ceremony attended by the United Kingdom's Prince Charles.

Why it matters: Mason replaced Britain's Queen Elizabeth as head of state Tuesday — removing the country's final remaining colonial tie to the U.K. almost 400 years after the first British ships arrived in Barbados.