Scientists say warming in the Arctic melted the ice covering the polar ocean to its second-lowest level in 40 years.
The administration of outgoing United States President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that it had issued drilling leases on more than 162,000 hectares (400,000 acres) of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), delivering on a promise to fossil fuel proponents on the president’s last full day in office.
Formal issuance of the leases by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) comes a day before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to protect the 7.9 million-hectare (19.6 million-acre) habitat for polar bears and caribou and to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
Leaseholders would still need to seek permits from the new administration before any wells could be drilled, among other challenges.
The administration’s plan to open up the refuge to oil and gas exploration is being challenged in court by environmentalists, Indigenous groups and Democratic-led states, and several major banks have said they will not finance projects in the region.
The BLM’s Alaska office said it had issued nine of the 11 leases that received bids at the agency’s January 6 auction. It is still working on issuing the remaining two, a spokesman said.
An Alaska state agency, which was the sole bidder for most of the land sold, was issued seven leases. The remaining two were issued to small independent companies Knik Arm Services LLC and Regenerate Alaska Inc, BLM said.
In a statement, BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett called the issuance “a hallmark step and a clear indication that Alaska remains important to meeting the nation’s energy needs”.
Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, one of the groups that has sued to block the ANWR drilling plan, called on Biden to take “strong and decisive action to ensure that no oil rig or seismic truck ever despoils an inch of this last great wilderness”.