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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.

DOJ cites discrimination in lawsuit against Texas over voting districts

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Department of Justice on Monday filed a lawsuit against Texas, alleging Republican state lawmakers discriminated against Black and Latino voters and has "again diluted the voting strength of minority Texans" when they approved new redistricting maps.

Why it matters: A DOJ assessment of the new districts found that they violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

3 hours ago - World

Biden to warn Putin U.S. will add troops in Eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine

Putin meets Biden in Geneva. Photo: Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty

President Biden will warn Russian President Vladimir Putin when they speak on Tuesday that if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. is prepared to increase its troop presence, capabilities and military exercises on NATO's "eastern flank," a senior administration official told reporters.

Why it matters: The administration believes it's increasingly likely that Putin will order an invasion.