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The next battles over ANWR

The Franklin Mountains, which are located in a different part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After Senate passage in the wee hours of Wednesday, the House is slated to vote on and send a tax bill for President Trump's signature that opens Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration later today.

Why it matters: The bill mandates the first lease sale within four years, although the Interior Department declined comment Tuesday as to how quickly they would seek to schedule a lease sale. The bill is a major, long-sought victory for Alaskan lawmakers and other backers of opening the ANWR's coastal plain, who say developing the area will help boost the state's economy and further boost U.S. energy security.

Reality check: While ANWR may contain huge hydrocarbon resources, there's no guarantee oil will ever be produced there. For one thing, procedures for both leasing and permitting give environmental groups an avenue to litigate development efforts, with targets for lawsuits including the environmental analysis underpinning the sale of drilling blocs. For another thing, the political clock could be a factor.

One of the multiple steps in the process is the detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) that must underpin any lease under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"Doing an adequate NEPA review that would need to precede any leasing decision would take a considerable amount of time," David Hayes, who was the Interior Department's deputy secretary under former Presidents Obama and Clinton, tells Axios. Hayes, who opposes ANWR drilling and currently heads NYU's State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, says that could take two years.

"That's typical for a major EIS on a very sensitive and complex. It is very hard to do in less than two years," Hayes says. "If they try and cut corners on their NEPA analysis, there will be very strong challenges to their record of decision."

The political clock also matters: All together, the whole detailed process moves slower than the political calendar. While it's hard to envision a political sea-change big enough that Congress would re-impose a drilling ban, a potential Democratic presidential administration could make it difficult for companies to proceed with drilling even if they hold leases.

As Barclays analysts point out in a new research note this morning:

"At any point along this at-least-four-year path to the first lease sale and the subsequent 2-6 year period to the first drilled well, political winds in Congress or a new Secretary of the Interior could stop the process."

Split decision: The Barclays note is somewhat of a mixed verdict on the potential for developing the coastal plain that's estimated to hold billions of barrels of oil.

  • They do see industry interest. "Despite abundant oil and gas resources in the US L-48, we think companies with existing footprints in Alaska will want the option of investing in a new frontier area with relatively low above-ground risk and high resource prospects," they write.
  • Yes, but: At the same time, Barclays points out that it's an area that's such a lightning rod for environmental controversy. Combined with Shell's ill-fated attempt to develop Arctic offshore resources a few years ago, it could "threaten the attractiveness" of ANWR for major international oil companies, especially when prices are in the $50–$60 per barrel range.

More: A good Wall Street Journal piece this morning also looks in-depth at whether the industry will seek to develop ANWR, as well as new offshore areas the Trump administration is also poised to offer. The crystal ball is cloudy, despite the potentially large resources and what a number of analysts say will be a need for large-scale projects in coming years to meet global demand.

"Yet many investors and analysts expect only tepid interest if Congress and the Trump administration follow through on plans to lease out what some think are the biggest untapped oil fields left in the U.S. Though promising, the lands up for consideration in offshore ocean waters and the Alaskan Arctic haven't been the sort to attract companies in recent years," the paper reports.

Yes, but: This Bloomberg piece looks at the uncertainties and timelines and concludes that it could be a decade before any wells are drilled. It also notes that drilling proponents are "undaunted" by the prospect of a long wait.

"The United States really needs to find new places to prospect for oil, not for today, but for the future," Robert Dillon, a consultant and former aide to Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, tells Bloomberg. "You need to be looking 10, 20, 30 years out to know where your supply is going to come from for the future of the country."

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