Oil drilling closer to reality for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

December 21, 2018, 12:13 p.m.
ANWR landscape
Photo: Troutnut/Shutterstock

The prospect of drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is getting closer to reality with the Interior Department's announcement that it has released its draft environmental impact statement. Once finalized, the review would dictate where and how companies can drill for oil.

"An energy-dominant America starts with an energy-dominant Alaska," said outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. "For decades, Alaskans on both sides of the aisle have overwhelmingly supported opening the 1002 [section of Alaska's North Slope] to energy exploration and development."

However, many conservation groups in Alaska oppose the plan even though Interior Department officials said options in the plan would protect calving grounds, reports NPR.

"In no way can we argue that this is going to be protective of the wildlife there," Lois Epstein of the Wilderness Society in Anchorage told NPR. "The caribou that arrive there every summer after they've been calving are going to encounter enormous amounts of infrastructure. It's devastating."

The announcement comes after an eight-month review process by the Bureau of Land Management to determine the environmental impact of leasing the land for drilling.

This review was expected after Congress voted earlier in 2018 to allow drilling in ANWR. If final approval is given after the review process, it would lift a nearly 40-year-old ban on drilling in the refuge.

Congress agreed the Department of the Interior could hold a lease sale of up to 800,00 acres of ANWR within the next decade. Per Congressional Budget Office projections reported by The Hill, the sale of land could generate almost $1.1 billion for the federal government. This revenue is seen as vital because it would pay for tax cuts created by the Republicans' overhaul of the tax system.

If approved, when would drilling begin?

ANWR drilling press conference and protest Native American leaders hold signs against drilling on the 58th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge outside the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 11. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

However, it looks like any drilling is unlikely for at least a decade.

"It’s still an open question about whether drilling will ever happen there," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official. "It’s hard to image that drilling will occur in the next 10 years — or ever."

The delay could be due to "required environmental scrutiny and permit reviews — and then the inevitable lawsuits from local communities and environmental groups opposed to any development in that rugged wilderness," point out Ari Natter and Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Bloomberg.

Plans to drill in ANWR have been a priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She contends that the drilling will be boon to Alaska and the U.S., and that it will be done in a way that respects the environment.

"If we move forward with development, we will do it right. We will take care of our wildlife, our lands and our people," she said during a hearing of the committee.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) who is against the drilling, argues that "it turns this coastal plane and wildlife refuge into an oil field."

As Bloomberg pointed out in 2017, interest in drilling in ANWR may be not be particularly high given the costs involved in setting up operations in such a remote area. Still, provided decades-old projections are true, the lure of between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of oil may be too much for energy companies to ignore.

Editor's note: This file has been updated since it was published in November 2017.

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