WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration will miss its target of holding the first-ever oil drilling lease sale in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this year due to delays in the environmental review process, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told Reuters.
President Donald Trump has made opening up drilling in ANWR – America’s largest wildlife sanctuary – a key goal in his broader effort to maximize U.S. oil, gas, and coal production after previous administrations resisted energy industry pressure to access the area. The Interior Department has previously said here it was determined that a sale would happen in 2019.
Bernhardt told Reuters in an interview this week that the Interior Department is still in the process of completing a “record of decision” for the project, the last phase of review in the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process before a lease sale can happen.
The process is intended to make sure that federal agencies consider the environmental effects of a policy decision before it moves ahead.
“I am pretty confident that we will ultimately finalize a record of decision that will go forward on that but there is nothing imminent. It’s certainly not days away,” Bernhardt said.
After a record of decision is published, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management must launch a 30-day public comment period on which tracts of land should be included in the lease sale.
Asked when a lease sale would take place, Bernhardt said: “I think we are not even at the point yet of determining that.”
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department, Carol Danko, confirmed that the sale would not take place this year.
The refuge, which is home to different animal species from polar bears to Porcupine caribou, has been off limits to drilling for decades and long sought after by the oil and gas industry.
But a 2017 tax bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump included a mandate for oil leasing in the coastal plain of ANWR and directed the Interior Department to hold a lease sale within four years.
Opening up the oil-rich region has long been a goal of Alaska’s congressional delegation, which views it as a good way to revive the state’s flagging energy industry – a crucial source of public revenue.
The Interior Department has been at the forefront of the Trump administration's "energy dominance" agenda to boost fossil fuel and other energy leasing on federal land. In 2018, federal oil and gas lease sales generated a record $1.1 billion, triple its previous record, according to Interior here.
But the administration’s rush to expand drilling, both on federal land and in coastal waters, has hit some speedbumps in the courts.
In March a federal judge in Alaska ruled Trump’s 2017 order to revoke the Obama administration’s ban on drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans was illegal, prompting Bernhardt to halt a five-year plan to open up more than 90% of the Outer Continental Shelf.
Bernhardt said those offshore drilling plans remain on hold. The “legal process certainly needs to be further along” before he will move ahead, he said.
Other federal courts have ruled the Bureau of Land Management has not adequately weighed the climate change impacts of drilling, halting several on-land lease sales.
Asked whether Interior need to pay more attention to climate change in leasing decisions, Bernhardt said the agency needs to consider “reasonably foreseeable” effects. He disagreed that continued oil and gas development will hasten climate change.
“If we are a large worldwide supplier of natural gas, what does it mean? That’s good for the world,” he said.
Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Sonya Hepinstall
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