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."