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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Interior Department on Thursday said it will auction oil drilling leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early January.

Why it matters: The procedural step would make it harder for President-elect Joe Biden to thwart drilling in the region, even though any actual development is years away.

The big picture: The refuge is thought to contain huge oil deposits that proponents say can be tapped with manageable disruption. But environmentalists oppose development, arguing it's impossible without harming and jeopardizing the ecosystem that's home to caribou, polar bears and other species.

Where it stands: Drilling advocates finally succeeded in mandating lease sales in late 2017 legislation after a decades-long battle over whether to open the region.

  • But the fight is nowhere near over, and there are administrative and legal levers that Biden — whose platform calls for "permanently protecting" the region — could pull to stymie drilling.
  • And the level of industry interest in highly uncertain. Companies are facing strained budgets, cloudy future demand and prices, activist pressure and other forces.

What's next: The Interior Department is slated to announce winning bids on January 6. "The sale date gives the Trump administration two weeks to formally issue any leases sold at auction before Biden is sworn in as president Jan. 20," Bloomberg reports.

What they're saying: “Oil and gas from the [refuge's] Coastal Plain is an important resource for meeting our nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities," said Chad Padgett, the Alaska state director for Interior's Bureau of Land Management, in a statement.

The other side: Matt Lee-Ashley of the anti-drilling Center for American Progress said in a statement: "They have made such a mess of the leasing process — suppressing science, cutting corners, ignoring the rights and voices of the Gwich’in people — that this whole boondoggle can and should be tossed in the trash by the courts or the next administration."

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jan 28, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Takeaways from Biden's sweeping order on climate change

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden's mammoth executive order on climate policy weighs in at over 7,500 words and resists any single narrative, but I've got a few initial takeaways.

Why it matters: The order aims to marshal the entire federal government behind new initiatives, so that means agencies that may not have the muscle memory or expertise of the resource and environmental branches like EPA and DOE.

Updated 7 hours ago - Sports

The potential GOAT of chess faces intriguing challenger

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi began on Friday, 1,094 days after Carlsen won his fourth consecutive title.

Why it matters: During the long, COVID-fueled layoff, chess entered a new era, and with the championship finally here, the age-old game is ready for its close-up.

Department of Interior proposes raising cost of drilling on public lands

A horizontal drilling rig and a pump jack sit on federal land in Lea County, New Mexico. Photo: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Oil and gas companies should pay more to drill on federal lands and waters, the Department of the Interior argued in a report released Friday, saying that the current rates were "outdated."

Driving the news: The Department of Interior report said that the federal government's oil and gas leasing and permitting program "fails to provide a fair return to taxpayers, even before factoring in the resulting climate-related costs that must be borne by taxpayers."