Trump administration seeks swift action on Alaska oil leases

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The Trump administration is seeking to sell leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as quickly as possible – drawing fire from opponents of drilling in the sensitive area, who are warning against a rushed process.

A top Department of Interior official who traveled to Alaska last week promised an imminent start to the leasing process, saying he wanted to wrap up environmental studies within a year, more quickly than such documents have been completed in the past.

The department will “move very, very quickly on that project,” David Bernhardt, deputy secretary, said in a speech in Anchorage, one of several stops he made in an Alaska trip that included visits to the North Slope and to Fairbanks.

Bernhardt said in the future he wants environmental impact statements to be finished in a year, not just for ANWR, calling the study process as unproductive and “just nuts.”

“These documents that are written today, when they’re 8,000, 10,000, 13,000, 20,000 pages with appendices and everything, I can tell you no one on the planet reads,” he said.

But Anchorage attorney Erik Grafe said environmental studies can be especially time-consuming in Alaska, because federal law requires consultation with Native tribes and public meetings in affected communities, many of which are remote.

“None of that can be rushed and done adequately,” said Grafe, of the environmental organization Earthjustice. “Doing this in a year is an extraordinarily fast timeline for a complicated process – a rightfully complicated process.”

Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, a staunch drilling supporter, said at an industry conference in Houston last week that “we’re hoping to have a lease sale as early as 2019 on that.”

The prospect of a sped-up process for environmental review drew fire from critics, who said it risks the climate and habitat of wildlife and inadequate input from local communities.

“It’s really insulting,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which represents the Gwich’in Athabascan people of Alaska and Canada. “You can’t open up a place with such little time. What about regulations? What about laws?”

Demientieff said the Gwich’in oppose ANWR oil development because it threatens the caribou herd that is central to their diet and culture. “We’re going to fight them every step of the way,” she said.

Grafe represented opponents to the 2008 Chukchi Sea offshore lease sale in which Royal Dutch Shell spent over $2 billion to acquire exploration rights.

A pre-lease sale environmental analysis, which took two years to complete, was found by federal courts to be too rushed. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had to produce two separate revisions, forcing delays in exploration work.

Shell ultimately abandoned the multibillion-dollar program in 2015 after failing to find commercial quantities of oil.

Grafe said history could be repeated with the ANWR.

“If the Trump administration takes shortcuts, we won’t hesitate to go to court,” he said.

Reporting By David Gaffen; Editing by Susan Thomas