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Interior Department contender says Biden would target Trump Arctic drilling push on first day

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s last-minute push to allow drilling in a pristine part of Alaska’s Arctic will be an early target for the next administration, according to Senator Tom Udall, a contender to lead the Interior Department under Joe Biden.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), visits with Phyliss Young, an organizer of the tribal get-out-the-vote coalition ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections on the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota, U.S. October 26, 2018. Picture taken October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck/File Photo

The New Mexico Democrat was speaking of the Trump administration’s plan to pull off a sale of oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before Biden, who wants to ban new drilling on all federal lands and waters as part of a strategy to fight climate change, becomes president on Jan. 20.

“I would expect that there would be real scrutiny and analysis of these last-minute kinds of deals that are being done,” Udall said in an interview, adding that he expects they could be overturned by the courts. “That’s an issue that needs to be looked at on Day One.”

The Interior Department, which manages federal and tribal lands, last week issued a request to energy companies to identify tracts in the refuge to be offered for sale. That puts the administration on a timeline that could bring a lease auction by mid-January, only days before Biden takes office.

Udall, a long-time member of Congress who is retiring from the Senate chamber early next year - and the son of former Interior chief Stewart Udall - is one of several people in the running to lead Interior under Biden, he confirmed.

He said he would accept the post if offered.

Udall, however, faces stiff competition from his fellow New Mexican, Representative Deb Haaland, who here would become the first Native American presidential cabinet member if tapped to lead Interior - a federal agency with huge oversight of Indian country.

“All I really want to do is help this administration get it right in any capacity I can,” Udall said.

CARBON-NEUTRAL LAND POLICY?

A top issue for the next Interior secretary will be implementing Biden’s pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal lands.

Such a move would have a profound impact on Udall and Haaland’s home state of New Mexico because its government relies heavily on revenues from drilling on federal acres to fund its ailing public schools.

    The state's Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham - a co-chair of the Biden transition team, told Reuters last year she would request a waiver exempting the state from a potential drilling ban here.

Udall would not comment on a potential waiver program.

But he said the United States should set a goal to make federal lands carbon neutral by restoring and protecting forests and shrub lands so they absorb as much carbon as is produced on them, an approach he argues would work for every state.

“It’s a goal that doesn’t require you to give exemptions,” he said.

    As part of that plan, the nation's leasing program would be included in a "top-to-bottom review of public lands," Udall said. During the review, the agency would pause new leasing, the way the Obama administration called for a moratorium on coal leases on federal land here, he said.

Udall added, however, that any policy that transitions the nation away from the use of fossil fuels needs to be accompanied by “very bold policy,” enacted by Congress, to help workers who lose their jobs.

“To do one without the other you are just asking for problems down the line,” he said.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Nichola Groom; Editing by Dan Grebler

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