Groups suing the Trump administration say the plan would cause irreparable damage to the Alaskan tundra ecosystem.
The Trump administration has announced plans to sell oil and gas leasing rights next month for a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a move that environmental and Indigenous groups said threatened the sprawling wildlife reserve in Alaska.
In a statement on Thursday, the United States Bureau of Land Management said the lease sale for the ANWR coastal plain would be conducted via livestream on January 6, just days before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden.
“Congress directed us to hold lease sales in the ANWR Coastal Plain, and we have taken a significant step in announcing the first sale in advance of the December 2021 deadline set by law,” the bureau’s Alaska state director, Chad Padgett, said in the statement.
“Oil and gas from the Coastal Plain is an important resource for meeting our Nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities.”
President Donald Trump authorised oil and gas exploration in the ANWR coastal plain in 2017 despite widespread and long-standing opposition from wildlife conservation advocates, Indigenous communities and some US legislators.
The ANWR stretches across more than 19.4 million acres (about 7.8 million hectares) of land and water in northeast Alaska.
The coastal plain is a key point in the migration route of porcupine caribou herds, which are relied upon by the Gwich’in Indigenous nation, whose members live in communities in the US and Canada.
Gwich’in leaders have conducted a years-long campaign to defend the ANWR from oil and gas development, which they said will harm the caribou herds and irrevocably alter their way of life.
Any oil companies that bid on lease sales for the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should brace themselves for an uphill legal battle fraught with high costs and reputational risks
The Defenders of Wildlife advocacy group rejected the bureau’s announcement on Thursday, describing the planned lease sale as “destructive” and “unlawful”.
The organisation has said oil and gas drilling in the coastal plain also threatens the denning habitat of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears.
“Any oil companies that bid on lease sales for the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should brace themselves for an uphill legal battle fraught with high costs and reputational risks,” the group’s president and CEO, Jamie Rappaport Clark, said in a statement.
“Defenders will not stand by as the government despoils lands sacred to Indigenous people, wipes out one of the most imperiled polar bear populations in the US and industrializes the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system.”
Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director at Environment America, another advocacy group, also decried the decision is “the latest outrage” in the Trump administration’s treatment of the ANWR.
“With an ‘everything must go’ mentality, they are attempting to jam through sales on some of our most iconic land. It’s flat out wrong,” Montgomery said in a statement.