Trump Agency Takes Major Step Toward Arctic Refuge Oil Drilling

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration will take a major step toward drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with an analysis of how plans for leasing the territory could affect polar bears, caribou and other animals.

The Interior Department’s draft environmental impact statement, to be published on Thursday, is a milestone in the administration’s push to sell drilling rights in the refuge’s coastal plain as soon as 2019. It lays out four approaches to leasing the land for oil development with an array of different stipulations, including one option that would forgo the activity altogether.

In each case, said Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash, the leasing options include protections for the primary calving habitat of the porcupine caribou, a wide-roaming species whose conservation is co-managed by Canada and the U.S.

“All of those alternatives have some degree of protection, whether it’s timing limitations on surface activity, no surface occupancy in the area, or, in a couple of cases, the acreage itself in that primary calving habitat is not available,” Balash told reporters on a conference call ahead of the report’s release.

The inclusion in the analysis of an option for no oil and gas leasing is essentially a pro forma step: the government is required to hold at least two auctions of oil and gas leases in the 1.6-million-acre (647,000 hectare) coastal plain within a decade under a law Congress passed a year ago. And Trump administration officials have said they’re aiming to hold the first of those sales in 2019.

But the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management still must conduct environmental reviews of the activity, and expected lawsuits may slow the government’s timeline. Even after oil companies buy leases in the region, any future drilling efforts would require separate permits and authorizations that also can be challenged in court.

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