Trump administration takes key step to open Alaskan wildlife refuge to drilling by end of year

Trump administration takes key step to open Alaskan wildlife refuge to drilling by end of year
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The Trump administration announced a key step toward opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas exploration Thursday, rolling out a plan that would see lease sales occur by the end of the year.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its finalized Environmental Impact Statement, which favors the option to offer lease sales across 1.56 million acres of Alaska’s coastal plains.

“After rigorous review, robust public comment, and a consideration of a range of alternatives, today’s announcement is a big step to carry out the clear mandate we received from Congress to develop and implement a leasing program for the Coastal Plain, a program the people of Alaska have been seeking for over 40 years,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement.

Under law, the BLM now has a 30-day waiting period before it can open up calls from fossil fuel companies for tracts to bid on and file its finalized Notice of Decision. Officials say they anticipate holding lease sales before the end of the year.

The agency said the preferred plan to lease the entire program area to oil and gas companies would still provide protection for the “many important resources” within the area. It added that 40 operating procedures would also be applied to reduce potential impacts. Any proposed future drilling projects would be subject to additional environmental scrutiny and permitting.

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The announcement comes the same day that the House voted 225-193 to ban drilling in ANWR. The House legislation is not expected to pass the GOP-controlled Senate.

An amendment from Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann Murkowski300 green groups say Senate has 'moral duty' to reject Trump's public lands nominee Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  On The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding MORE (R-Alaska) added to the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act mandated the government hold two lease sales encompassing at least 400,000 acres each in the coastal plain of ANWR.

Preparations to hold sales began fervently under President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE.

The language has been heavily criticized by Democrats and conservationists alike, who argue it will impact local communities and contribute greenhouse gas emissions.

BLM officials said the announcement Thursday was not tied to the House vote.

“When you look at this, even if the House voted the way it did, that’s not for us to determine,” said a BLM official on a call with reporters Thursday afternoon.

“We have the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. We are rolling along with what the law says rather than focusing on what the House vote was today.”

Garett Rose, staff attorney for the Alaska Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, denounced the BLM’s environmental determinations.

“The majority of Americans want this sacred area protected. And within hours of Congress taking action, the Trump administration is moving with haste to destroy it,” Rose said in a statement.

Critics warn that oil and gas development in ANWR would wreak havoc on populations of Porcupine caribou, polar bears and migratory birds. They say some of the species that would be endangered by the drilling are relied upon by the native population in Alaska.

“This sham ‘review’ unlawfully opens the entire coastal plain to leasing and fails to minimize damage to this unique environment.  It violates what is sacred ground to, and a source of subsistence for, the Gwich’in people.”