Latest Trump plans would open Alaskan Arctic to drilling by next summer

The Trump administration rolled out a long-awaited proposal Thursday that could open up oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic as early as next summer.

Interior’s announcement is the second stage in a first-of-its-kind bid to to allow fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) -- actions Congress mandated in a vote last December.

The plan is being trumpeted as a key cog in the president's push towards increased energy independence.

"An energy-dominant America starts with an energy-dominant Alaska, and among the scores of accomplishments we have had at Interior under President Donald J. Trump, taking these steps toward opening the 1002 section of Alaska's North Slope stands out among the most impactful toward bolstering America's economic strength and security," said outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeSenate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Interior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? MORE in a statement.

"For decades, Alaskans on both sides of the aisle have overwhelmingly supported opening the 1002 to energy exploration and development. I commend the President for giving Alaskans a voice again in how their public lands are used and for his commitment to responsible development of the Coastal Plain."

The proposal offers four options to fossil fuel production that Interior officials said will allow for “a range of leasing alternatives” in the remote area of Alaskan wilderness, and includes methods to avoid impacts on polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.

Interior officials say they believe at least one leasing option will be finalized.

“There is, for baseline purposes, a no action alternative. But realistically, Congress has told us to have this sale. So in that regards, practically speaking, we will be moving forward here in implementing the law,” said Joe BalashJoseph (Joe) BalashOvernight Energy: Trump plan could open Alaska's Arctic region to drilling by next summer | States sue over offshore drilling tests | Lawmakers fail to pass lands bill this year Latest Trump plans would open Alaskan Arctic to drilling by next summer Trump officials attended conference where speaker said carbon dioxide makes planet 'greener' MORE, Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management at Interior, on a call with reporters Wednesday night.

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Balash, who before joining Interior last December worked for Alaskan Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanHillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senators offer bipartisan bill to help US firms remove Huawei equipment from networks Senators introduce bill to prevent border agency from selling personal data MORE (R), said the administration expects the fossil fuel industry will react positively to their suggestions.

“We expect specific industry interest in finding out what’s there and being in a place for first production, if in fact the potential for what we think is there comes up,” he said.

The proposal will appear in the Federal Register next Friday, kicking off a 45 day comment period. If everything moves according to plan, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could hold its first lease sale in the area as early as next summer, according to Balash.

Exactly a year ago, Congress passed a bill opening up the Arctic refugee to oil drilling, ending more than four decades of heated debate on the matter. The vote was largely along party lines.

Balash cautioned Wednesday that once leases are issued to oil and gas companies, it doesn’t mean they are authorized to do “any particular activity,” on the land.

He said any exploration activities taken by groups going forward would still have to get subsequent authorization and would need to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding potential effects on wildlife.

Caribou herds are of special concern in the region. Alternatives in Interior’s proposal include “some degree of protection” for the species Balash said. That includes proposals for restricted timing, no surface occupancy in the area, or acreage restrictions--especially in calving habitat.

He said the options are meant to “ensure that we are confident that the heard itself will remain sustainable.”

Asked how the government planned to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions likely to stem from new drilling, Balash said, “Those are questions for a different forum, not this one.”

A report released by the U.S. Geological Survey in November found that nearly a quarter of all carbon emissions in the U.S. stem from public lands.

“The issues that a lot of people worry about with regard to pollution or emissions from oil and gas activities, there is no place that has higher standards or does it better than Alaska,” said Balash.

“And whether you’re talking about the state or the federal government, Alaska really is the gold standard when it comes to development actives. You can expect to see the greatest care taken.”

The Interior Department received its first application for development in the region in the spring. An oil exploration firm and two Alaska Native corporations together submitted an application to begin seismic exploration work in the wilderness area, the Washington Post reported.

The plan reportedly called for the use of explosives, sleds and large teams of workers to map underground gas reserves.

The FWS reportedly said the plan was “not adequate.”

The highly controversial announcement has long been criticized by environmentalists, many of whom have vowed to sue.

Since the law’s passage, Democratic lawmakers have also voiced their discontent. Two Democratic House lawmakers introduced a bill in May to block the refuge drilling. One of those members is Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who will chair the House Natural Resources committee next year.

This story was updated at 1:45. p.m.