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Democrats question legality of speedy Arctic refuge oil lease sales

Democrats question legality of speedy Arctic refuge oil lease sales
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Three Democratic lawmakers are raising legal questions about the rapid timeline the Trump administration is using to advance oil and gas development at a wildlife refuge in the Arctic. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated in a federal register notice that was published Monday that it must receive bids for land leases by Dec. 31, though they won’t be opened until Jan. 6. 

In a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose department oversees the BLM, Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanSafe and ethical seafood on the menu this Congress Modernizing transportation can help tackle the climate crisis Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' MORE (Calif.) and Alan LowenthalAlan Stuart LowenthalShakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' Face mask PPE is everywhere now — including the ocean Native Americans urge Deb Haaland to help tackle pollution in communities of color MORE (Calif.) argued that requiring bids 23 days after the notice of sale likely goes against the bureau's regulations. 

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They noted that a regulation requires the notice to be published 30 days before the sale date. 

“BLM appears to be pretending to adhere to the regulation by waiting until January 6, 2021, to open the bids, but simply saying that is the date of ‘the lease sale’ defies common sense and almost certainly violates the regulation,” they wrote

The bureau announced the Jan. 6 sale date for leases at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in a statement last week, but the Dec, 31 date was first announced in the new notice of sale. 

The lawmakers also criticized the fact that the notice asking for bids was released before the end of a period during which the administration is asking for input as to which tracts of land should be sold. 

“Publishing the Notice of Sale prior to the deadline for comments makes it clear that this call for comments was purely for show, although at least that is an accurate reflection of the amount of value this administration places on public input,” they wrote. 

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In response, a BLM spokesperson said in a statement that “all comments and nominations regarding the lease tracts to be offered will be considered” and that the agency can “withdraw tracts from leasing after nominations and comments are received.”

The spokesperson also said that bids will only be accepted between Dec. 21 and 31, after the call for nominations closes, and that the department is “one step closer to fulfilling our Congressionally mandated obligation to hold a lease sale in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

A 2017 law requires two lease sales to be held at ANWR by the end of 2024, so although President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE opposes drilling at the refuge, he may have had to carry out lease sales. 

However, by holding the sale before Biden takes office, the Trump administration may be undercutting some of the legal tools the incoming administration would have to limit drilling there, unless the leases are voided under court challenges. 

"The Trump administration's trampling of pre-sale procedural requirements shows that the fix is in,”  David Hayes, who served as Interior secretary in the Obama administration, said in a statement to The Hill. “Providing a last minute shopping opportunity for oil companies is no one else's idea of a Merry Christmas.”

ANWR is home to grizzly bears, polar bears, gray wolves and more than 200 species of birds and contains land considered sacred by the Gwich’in people. 

Also on Tuesday, the federal government proposed allowing seismic testing that would disturb polar bears in their dens at the refuge as soon as Jan. 21, the day after Biden takes office.