Energy & Environment

To environmentalists, low interest in ANWR sales a failure for Trump

President Trump may have succeeded in selling off rights to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but environmentalists largely see the move as a failure, primarily because there was so little interest from oil companies.

Just three companies bid on tracts of land in the Wednesday sale, spending just $14.4 million of the billion-dollar figure projected when the GOP first proposed holding two lease sales in the pristine wildlife refuge.

“It was quite a flop. I think it means there really isn’t any interest in spoiling our most iconic national wildlife refuge, even from the oil industry itself,” said Patrick Lavin, Alaska policy director with Defenders of Wildlife.

“To industrialize a landscape sacred to indigenous Alaskans and home to really incomparable wildlife and wilderness values for frontier oil and gas development that’s going to exacerbate the climate crisis and lock us into decades of unnecessary carbon pollution … when you add all that up I think there’s almost universal dismissal of that as an idea,” he added, “and I think the results help show this.”

The majority of the tracts of land were purchased by a single buyer: not an oil company but the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), the state’s economic development wing.

The lack of interest from oil companies could be due in part to a growing number of banks that have said they would not fund any exploration or drilling activities in the refuge.

Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citi have all said they would not provide financing for Arctic drilling. 

“The Trump administration’s paltry, illegitimate sale represents a massive failure of the Trump administration, and is a case study of the growing opposition from investors to increased drilling in the Arctic region,” Ben Cushing, senior campaign representative with Sierra Club’s financial advocacy campaign, said in a statement. “Every major U.S. bank and nearly 30 major banks around the world have committed to not fund new oil and gas development in the Arctic, and that trend will only continue.”

The sale was a result of a provision in the 2017 tax cut bill, spearheaded by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), that required two lease sales in ANWR, the first of which was required by the end of 2021.

“While it did not occur under ideal conditions, it will benefit Alaskans both in the short-term and well into the future,” Murkowski said in a statement.

“The resources that stand to be produced from a very small part of the 1002 Area will be critical to creating jobs, generating revenues, refilling the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, and ensuring our nation’s continued energy security. I look forward to leases being awarded to the winning bidders in the near future, and to the continued faithful implementation of this important program,” she added, referring to the number given to the coastal plain area up for sale. 

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staff, who conducted the sale, called it historic and a success even as it raised far below what was forecast.

“I think that what we saw today was very successful. Again a historic day. We followed the law, we followed the tax cuts and jobs act … and so we have people that have participated, and so I think it’s overall a very big success,” BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett said in a call with reporters.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to permanently protect AMWR, but even the late-stage nature of the sale doesn’t completely block the administration from rushing to complete the needed reviews that still must take place at BLM and the Department of Justice. 

The administration is facing four suits on the decision, though on Tuesday a judge declined to block the Wednesday lease sale itself. 

“There’s still a possibility of development, so I don’t think anyone is really happy until we see those leases nullified,” Jenny Rowland-Shea, a senior public lands policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, told The Hill.

“I think it’s more of a ‘Why would you ever bother?’” Rowland-Shea said of her feelings. “This should have never been done in the first place.”

She’s also raised questions about the ability of AIDEA to purchase the leases, given that they will need to resell them to someone who can actually drill on the land. It’s an odd arrangement, given that the state already stands to earn 50 percent of the royalties from the process, but one that BLM argues is legal.

For the state, the hope is to bring jobs to the region, even if there may not be wide interest among oil companies.

“By acquiring these tracts, Alaska preserves the right to responsibly develop its natural resources. This will create new, good-paying jobs on the North Slope and generate revenue for the local economies of Alaska’s Arctic and the State’s general fund,” AIDEA Executive Director Alan Weitzner said in a release after its bids were announced.

Tags ANWR Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Arctic Refuge drilling controversy Bureau of Land Management Donald Trump Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski

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