An oil pipeline in Alaska. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
An oil pipeline in Alaska. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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3 Arctic Wilderness Areas to Watch as Trump Tries to Expand Oil & Gas Drilling

Once land is leased, it's a complicated process to undo. Environmental groups are fighting to stop lease sales in ecologically sensitive areas before it's too late.

When President Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, his intention was clear: His would be an administration defined in part by a no-holds-barred effort to open lands for oil and gas drilling, and there was no place more appealing than the Alaskan Arctic.

For three years, that effort has been carried out at break-neck speed on three fronts: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, offshore Arctic waters, and the crown jewel of wilderness lands—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

2019 Year in Review

“The Trump administration is going full speed ahead, and, if anything, accelerating the pace of trying to get as much of the public land in the Arctic under lease—to try to give as much away to the oil companies as it can—as it approaches the end of its first term,” said Erik Grafe, an attorney at Earthjustice.

Once land is leased, it’s a complicated process to undo. That’s why environmental groups want to stop lease sales in sensitive areas before it’s too late.

The dance that’s been underway between the Trump administration and environmental groups looks like this: The federal government races to put together environmental documents, working at such a fast pace it’s more likely to make errors; environmental groups pounce on those errors and sue; and then it’s up to the courts. Once a decision is handed down, the loser appeals—and the process continues.

In the Arctic, that has resulted in many things happening at once—environmental reviews in each of the three frontiers, lawsuits for various aspects of those reviews, and then appeals.

Here’s a breakdown of what happened in each targeted area in 2019, and what to expect during the final year of Trump’s first term in office.

National Petroleum Reserve: Full Steam Ahead

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, more than 1.3 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) have been leased. This 23.6 million acre reserve may have the word “petroleum” in its name, but it’s home to some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the country, including Teshekpuk Lake.

The Teshekpuk Lake region is an important nesting ground for migratory birds and is the calving area for the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd. When the Obama administration completed a three-year review of the environmental impacts of drilling in the NPR-A, it created a buffer around the lake to protect it from drilling.

“It’s one of the most important hot spots for birds and avian resources in particular in the entire North and South America,” said David Hayes, who was the deputy Interior Secretary during the Clinton and Obama administrations and oversaw the creation of the Obama plan. “That’s where a large percentage of migratory birds spend their summer.”

But there are also believed to be vast stores of oil in the reserve—perhaps as much as 8.7 billion barrels of undiscovered oil—and the area around Teshekpuk Lake is thought to be particularly rich in resources.

Map: Regions of Alaska Targeted for Oil and Gas Leases

A few months into Trump’s presidency, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order to re-do the Obama management plan, and earlier this year, the Trump administration released its draft. The final plan, expected to land in the spring or early summer, is widely expected to bring drilling closer to Teshekpuk Lake.

The draft published in late November proposed allowing drilling on as much as 18.3 million acres of the reserve, including Teshekpuk Lake.

When the Interior Department held its 2019 lease sale in mid-December, oil companies positioned themselves to take advantage of that future plan by bidding on tracts closest to the lake. More than a million acres were leased—averaging about $11 an acre, a low price that drew an outcry from environmentalists, who have long suspected that Trump’s agenda in the Arctic isn’t grounded in economic need.

The low price “reinforces the fact that exposing America’s Arctic to oil development is about fulfilling an administration talking point and not meeting actual real-world demand,” said Kristen Miller, the conservation director for Alaska Wilderness League.

“It’s concerning to see so many leases being bought up around Teshekpuk Lake,” said Rebecca Noblin, a staff attorney at Earthjustice who works on the western Arctic issues. Those leases will position companies—including newcomer North Slope Exploration, which was the main buyer in 2019—for moving right up to the lake if and when it becomes available.

The millions of acres of the National Petroleum Reserve the Trump administration has offered for oil and gas drilling included sensitive wildlife habitat around the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, one of the largest and most ecologically significant wetlands in the world. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Once the final management plan is released, the lawyers at Earthjustice will likely sue on behalf of environmental groups, in hopes of slowing down the implementation of the new plan. That’s in addition to other lawsuits they already have underway—one challenges ConocoPhillips’ plans in the area; another challenges the federal government’s assessment of impacts to the village of Nuiqsut.

Hayes said he is skeptical that the final plan will be done before the 2020 presidential election. Typically, it would take months to finalize these kinds of plans, he said. “And then there will be an immediate lawsuit. I think as a practical matter there won’t be any action on the ground in terms of the NPR-A before the election.”

Whether the oil industry ultimately gets what it wants in this area will likely depend on who wins the presidential election.

Arctic Refuge: Steps Toward Development

The Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been fought over for decades. The 1.6 million-acre stretch of land is home to polar bears, hundreds of species of birds and the Porcupine caribou herd, which is a vital resource for the native Gwich’in people.

In 2017, the Trump administration slid a provision to allow drilling there into a tax bill and began a sprint to hold a lease sale there before the end of Trump’s first term. Based on the steps taken by the administration in 2019, that seems on pace to happen—unless the courts get in the way.

“This is the biggest danger in Alaska in years, that the Arctic Refuge will be opened up, that there will be lease sales and an effort to develop those leases, even though the economics don’t make sense,” said Hayes. “The politics are driving it, and I think there will be some oil companies that will salute the politics and go forward.”

As with all leasing programs, there are federally required steps that have to be taken before a lease sale can be held. One of the most significant of those steps—the publication of a final environmental impact statement—happened in September of this year. In that document, the Trump administration recommended offering the entire Coastal Plain up for leasing, as opposed to more moderate options it had considered earlier.

Grafe, the Earthjustice attorney, said that choice is scientifically indefensible, and may be the reason why regulators have yet to finalize the environmental review process.

Caribou on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Caribou on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. The Trump administration plans to starting leasing to oil and gas companies that want to drill there. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Though the Interior Department had planned to hold a lease sale in the refuge in 2019, that deadline has come and gone.

It’s not totally clear what the holdup is, but Grafe and Hayes both said the federal government could be struggling with finalizing the review due to questions raised during the public comment process suggesting the review was incomplete—something that Hayes said could also leave it vulnerable to lawsuits.

The legislation that called for the lease sale to happen—the 2017 tax bill—required that the Interior Department administer a program that covers “the leasing, development, production and transportation of oil and gas in and from the [Arctic Refuge’s] Coastal Plain.” Instead, the review only covered leasing with just passing mentions to the other aspects, Hayes said.

“It’s unabashedly a leasing EIS (environmental impact statement), when Congress said to prepare a soup-to-nuts look at impacts,” Hayes said.


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Looking forward to 2020, both Grafe and Hayes expect that the environmental review will be finalized and that the Interior Department will try to hold a lease sale in the refuge before the end of Trump’s first term.

Once the land is leased, it would be hard to undo. But environmental groups, and possibly some state attorneys general, will likely sue before any sale can happen. The courts could require that any lawsuits be settled prior to a lease sale.

“Will a court potentially stay a lease sale because of the seriousness of the arguments and the potential for irreparable harm?” Hayes said. “I don’t know how that will play out. It’s certainly not a given that prior to the election these issues will be resolved.”

Offshore: A Win for Environment Groups, for Now

Just as Obama was leaving office, he issued an executive order permanently banning drilling in the offshore waters of the Arctic. When Trump took over the White House, he issued an executive order of his own to overturn Obama’s.

This year, Alaska federal Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that Trump’s executive order had been unlawful. Without an act of Congress, she ruled, Obama’s existing order could not be overturned.

“That was a big victory,” said Grafe. “It restored the status quo for those areas.”

There’s one existing project that is unaffected by the judge’s ruling: the Liberty Project, in the near-shore federal waters of the Chukchi Sea. That project, owned by Texas-based operator Hilcorp, is being contested by Earthjustice. Noblin argued against it in federal appeals court in November and is awaiting a decision.

Hilcorp's Arctic Drilling Plan

Construction is slated to begin in the winter of 2020-2021 at the earliest, Noblin said.

“I think in 2020 we’ll see most of these decisions finalized,” Grafe said. “There’s this increasing rush to get as much done in the Arctic as possible.”

Environmental groups will be pushing back the entire way, Noblin said: “There’s going to be a massive effort on our side to stop those things and hopefully the court, as with the offshore ruling, will stop the unlawful action.”

Top photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images