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Trump administration, in belated push, sets out to sell oil rights in arctic refuge

In a last-minute attempt to achieve its long-sought goal of allowing oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Trump administration announced on Monday that it would begin the formal process of selling leases to companies. oil.

This sets up a potential lease sale just before the inauguration day Jan.20, leaving the new administration of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who opposed drilling at the shelter, to try to stop them afterwards. stroke.

“The Trump administration is attempting a ‘Hail Mary’ pass,” said Jenny Rowland-Shea, senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal group in Washington. “They know what they put out there is rushed and legally questionable.”

The Federal Register on Monday released a “call for applications” from the Bureau of Land Management, to be officially released on Tuesday, regarding lease sales in approximately 1.5 million acres of the refuge along the Arctic Ocean coast. . A call for applications is essentially a request to oil companies to specify the plots of land they would be interested in exploring and possibly drilling for oil and gas.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said it welcomed the move. In a statement, the organization said the development of the shelter was “long overdue and will create well-paying jobs and provide a new source of income for the state – which is why a majority of Alaska support it.”

The call for nominations will allow 30 days for comments, after which the office, which is part of the Home Office, can issue a final sale notice which will take place as early as 30 days later. This means that the sales could take place a few days before the opening day.

Normally, the office would take the time to review the comments and determine which fliers to sell before issuing the final notice of sale, a process that can take several months. In this case, however, the office could decide to offer the entire area and issue the notice immediately.

There was no immediate response to emailed requests for comment from the Home Office or the Alaska Bureau of Land Management office.

Any sale would then be subject to review by agencies in the Biden administration, including the office and the Department of Justice, a process that could take a month or two. This could allow Biden’s White House to refuse to issue the leases, perhaps claiming that the science behind the plan to allow drilling at the refuge was flawed, as environmental groups have claimed.

At stake is the future of the refuge, one of the most remote and pristine regions of the United States and home to polar bears and migrating caribou, among other wildlife. In 2017, in a reversal of decades of protections, the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress opened up the refuge’s coastal plain to potential for oil and gas development.

The coastal plain is believed to overlap geological formations that could contain billions of barrels of oil, although this assessment is based on data collected in the 1980s. Only one exploration well has ever been drilled in the refuge and one. New York Times investigation found the results to be disappointing.

If sales continue, it’s unclear what interest drilling in the refuge will attract from oil companies. It would be at least a decade before oil was produced from there, and by then the drive to wean the world off fossil fuels might have reduced the need for it. Oil production in the Arctic is also difficult and expensive; companies may decide that it is not worth the money. They may also fear the potential impact on their reputation by drilling in such a pristine location.

In August, the Home Office announced that it was accepting a final environmental review of the hire-purchase plan and that it would start preparing to auction the acreage. At the time, Home Secretary David Bernhardt said he believed the sales could take place before the end of the year.

Environmentalists and other opponents, including a group representing an indigenous Alaskan tribe, the Gwich’in, who live near the shelter, have filed a lawsuit, saying the Home Office had failed not sufficiently taken into account the effects of oil and gas development on climate change and on wildlife.

These groups also criticized the decision to launch the call for candidates.

“This lease sale is one more box that the Trump administration is trying to tick for its oil industry allies before leaving the White House in January,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a press release. “It is disappointing that this administration to the very end has maintained such low esteem for American public lands, or the wildlife and indigenous communities that depend on it.

In addition, the Bureau of Land Management has revived a plan for a seismic survey in the coastal plain to better assess the oil reserves there. The investigation was proposed by an Alaskan indigenous village company, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, bringing in a contractor, SAExploration, which was part of a similar proposal in 2018 and came to nothing.

If the bureau gives final approval to the plan, heavy survey trucks could cross part of the coastal plain by the end of this year.

Environmental groups opposed the plan of investigation, which they say will permanently harm the delicate tundra and could disturb, injure or kill laying polar bears. But even if the investigation continues, it will not be completed until well after the sale.

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White House publishes new earthquake test plan in arctic refuge

The Trump administration has revived long-delayed plans to conduct a seismic survey in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in a prelude to oil drilling there.

On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management released a proposal to launch a seismic survey in December that would look for signs of underground oil reserves on more than half a million acres on the eastern side of the refuge’s coastal plain. The Bureau said it would accept public comment on the plan, proposed by an Alaska Native village society, for 14 days before deciding whether to issue a permit.

Environmental and conservation groups in Alaska and elsewhere immediately criticized the action, saying it would permanently harm the delicate arctic tundra and affect polar bears and other wildlife in one of the most remote areas. and the most pristine in the United States. They also said the quick turnaround meant a thorough environmental review would not be possible.

“The submission of this demand and BLM’s choice to act so close to the election shows how desperate the administration is to hand over one of the country’s most sensitive landscapes to the oil industry,” Lois Epstein , director of the Arctic program for the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “The federal government is recklessly rushing in and irresponsibly denying the public the time it takes to assess the request and submit comments.”

The lands that would be studied are part of the so-called 1002 area, which the administration and the Trump Congress opened up to oil and gas development in 2017, undoing decades of protection. In August, the Home Office completed its review of plans to sell oil and gas leases in the region, saying the sale could take place before the end of the year. Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to stop the sale, and so far rental sales have not taken place.

Area 1002 is believed to cover geological formations that could contain billions of barrels of oil, but this assessment is based largely on the only seismic survey ever conducted there in the 1980s. Only one exploration well has never been drilled into the shelter and a New York Times investigation found the results to be disappointing.

The new proposal, from the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, would use improved technology capable of producing three-dimensional images of underground formations. This would involve the deployment of heavy trucks across the tundra in a grid pattern, along with supplies and mobile housing for a team of 180 workers.

Due to the potential for damage to the tundra, work could only be carried out when there was sufficient snow cover and frozen ground. But the damage from previous seismic work, also carried out in winter, is still visible today.

The proposal calls for the work to be performed by a contractor, SAExploration, a Houston-based company that specializes in seismic surveys for the oil and gas industry.

In 2018, SAExploration, along with the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation and another Native Alaskan company, submitted a proposal for a seismic survey at the refuge. But an environmental assessment of the proposal was delayed and the plan was ultimately shelved last year.

SAExploration has since declared bankruptcy, and earlier this month the company and four former senior executives were accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of committing multi-year accounting fraud that inflated the company’s revenue by $ 100 million and concealed the theft of about $ 10 million. by executives.

The new proposal is similar to the one released in 2018, albeit smaller in scope, covering about a third of Area 1002. It also increases efforts to locate polar bear dens in the snow before the seismic trucks start to shoot. to roll. Environmental groups and some scientists who study polar bears fear that seismic equipment could disrupt or even crush dens, which are the winter homes of females and their newborns.

The proposal calls for the use of infrared cameras to detect the heat of polar bears in dens under the snow. But a study published in February suggested that cameras were at risk of missing dens.