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Why it Matters
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) consists of more than 19 million acres of wilderness in northeastern Alaska. The refuge includes some of the most pristine, untouched lands and waters within the United States. It has no roads, marked trails, or campgrounds, though it is open to recreational use, such as hunting and fishing. the Arctic Refuge is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of Interior.
the Arctic Refuge is home to diverse wildlife, including over 40 mammals and over 200 bird species. It is a critical area for the Porcupine caribou, as thousands of them migrate through the Arctic Refuge to reach appropriate calving locations each year. Female polar bears build their dens and give birth on the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain, the 1.5 million acres of land along the Beaufort Sea. The polar bears that come to the Coastal Plain are part of the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears, which historically built their dens on sea ice. As sea ice continues to thin, the maternal polar bears have increasingly built their dens on land. According to the most recent research, around 900 Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears still exist in the world, which represents a significant decline in their population numbers over the past two decades.
While nearly 80% of the Arctic Refuge is protected from oil and gas development under a 1980 law passed by Congress, the 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain is not. The 1980 law authorized a survey of the Coastal Plain for potential oil and gas development. The initial assessment was finalized in 1987. For the succeeding 30 years, Congress did not authorize any subsequent oil and gas exploration, and the Coastal Plain maintained its natural wilderness, undisturbed by the harmful activity and pollution that oil leasing could bring. In 1998, the United States Geological Survey estimated that there were 4.3 to 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil in the Coastal Plain. Because no oil and gas exploration has occurred since the 1980s, there is significant uncertainty about the size of oil reserves in the Arctic Refuge.
However, in 2017, Congress and the Trump administration reversed course and established an oil and gas leasing program on the Coastal Plain. Without stringent environmental safeguards and oversight, this leasing program could be detrimental to the Coastal Plain and the species that depend on the fragile wilderness for survival.
The Department of Interior (DOI) is also considering expanding oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve, 22.1 million acres of land in northwest Alaska managed by the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For more information on the administration’s actions there, visit our post on the National Petroleum Reserve.
As part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Congress authorized oil and gas exploration, leasing, development, and production on the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain, and ordered the Secretary of the Interior to conduct at least two lease sales within 10 years. Over the next three years, the Trump administration steadfastly pursued opening the Coastal Plain to oil and gas leasing, a process that States, Alaska Native tribes, environmental groups, and members of Congress contested every step of the way. On Jan. 6, 2021, DOI held the first lease sale for 22 sections on the Coastal Plain, half of which received bids. On the last day of the Trump administration, BLM’s Alaska branch conveyed nine of the 11 leases, totaling 437,804 acres. On Jan. 20, 2021, President Biden issued an Executive Order placing a temporary moratorium on all activities relating to BLM’s Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, “in light of the alleged deficiencies underlying the program, including the inadequacy of environmental review.”
Dec. 6, 1960 The Department of the Interior (DOI) designates 9.8 million acres of wilderness in northeastern Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Pursuant to the order, DOI is tasked with managing the land “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.”
Dec. 2, 1980 Congress enacts the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The primary purpose of ANILCA is to preserve the wilderness of over 100 million acres of Alaskan land. As part of the legislation, Congress renames the range the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and added over 9 million acres of land to the Arctic Refuge. However, Section 1002 of ANILCA authorizes oil and gas exploratory activity in the 1.5 million-acre area of the Arctic Refuge known as the Coastal Plain. Section 1002 also orders the Secretary of DOI to conduct a study of the Coastal Plain as well as the potential impact of oil and gas development and production in the area. Meanwhile, Section 1003 of ANILCA establishes a prohibition on the leasing, development, and production of oil and gas from the Arctic Refuge, unless authorized by an Act of Congress.
Winters of 1984 and 1985 As part of the exploration activity authorized under ANILCA, seismic testing is conducted throughout the refuge, leaving around 2,500 miles of trail destruction in the tundra. Though 90% of the affected tundra recovered within 10 years, around 5% of the exploration trails were still unrecovered in 2009.
April 1987 DOI completes and publishes the Coastal Plain Resource Assessment for the Arctic Refuge. The report analyzes the likely environmental impacts of five management options for the coastal plain. The Secretary of DOI recommends that Congress open the entire Coastal Plain to oil and gas exploration, assuming that only a small portion of the area will ever be leased and/or developed. The report also includes an Environmental Impact Statement. Congress continues to study the area but does not open the Coastal Plain to leasing for over three decades.
Jan. 27, 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces the publication of a Revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement for ANWR. The plan considers five management alternatives and recommends that Congress designate around 12 million acres in ANWR as Wilderness Study Areas, including the Coastal Plain. This would allow the Bureau of Land Management to implement policies to protect those areas’ natural conditions until Congress decides to designate them as wilderness areas. Alaska Native communities are split in their reaction to the Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The Gwich’in community supports the plan for its ability to protect wildlife and sacred lands within the Arctic Refuge, whereas the Iñupiat people do not want to restrict economic opportunities that could significantly benefit their community.
April 3, 2015 The Regional Director for DOI in Alaska signs the Record of Decision to adopt the Comprehensive Conservation Plan’s recommendations. However, without an authorizing statute from Congress, DOI cannot unilaterally begin managing the targeted areas as Wilderness Study Areas. Instead, DOI continues to manage the Coastal Plan under Minimal Management standards. These standards are intended to maintain the existing conditions of the area but are not as permanent of a protection as the Wilderness Study Area standards.
April 3, 2015 President Obama sends a letter to Congressional leaders urging Congress to act, but Congress does not pass the legislation needed to more permanently protect the 12 million acres.
Dec. 22, 2017 President Trump signs the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Section 20001 of the Act authorizes oil and gas exploration, leasing, development, and production on ANWR’s Coastal Plain. The Act orders the Secretary of the Interior to establish an oil and gas plan for the Coastal Plain and required that two lease sales occur within 10 years of the passage of the Act. One lease sale, for an area of at least 400,000 acres, must occur within four years of the passage of the act, or before Dec. 21, 2021. The second lease sale must occur within seven years, or before Dec. 21, 2024.
April 20, 2018 The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of DOI, publishes a Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The Environmental Impact Statement is an initial step that the agency must take. The notice begins the “scoping process,” which includes a request for public comment on the scope of issues, impacts, and potential alternatives that BLM should consider when developing the Environmental Impact Statement. In evaluating the environmental consequences of the proposed leasing program, BLM must assess alternative plans for implementation of the program. For instance, the Environmental Impact Statement may include certain areas that would result in less damage from oil production or terms and conditions for leases that will minimize the damage of oil and gas development and production. However, BLM is not required to choose the least harmful alternative upon completion of the Environmental Impact Statement. BLM holds public hearings across Alaska as part of the process. Comments are due by June 19, 2018.
July 18, 2018 BLM releases a seven-page document describing a plan by SAExploration, Inc. (SAE) for seismic testing across the entire Coastal Plain (2,600 square miles). The plan mentions but does not elaborate on environmental or cultural risks implicated by the seismic testing. According to the plan, SAE applied for an “incidental take authorization” for the work that will occur near polar bear habitats. Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, an “incidental take authorization” allows the authorized party to unintentionally “take” – meaning “harass, hunt, capture, or kill” – a small number of the protected species. In general, these licenses are used to authorize activities that may alter the polar bears’ habits.
Aug. 6, 2018 BLM makes publicly available SAE’s application for permits to conduct a winter seismic survey. This application was submitted earlier in the summer and outlines the corporation’s plan to conduct seismic testing in the Coastal Plain. SAE intends to use 3-D seismic testing. This method, which uses large vibrations to send seismic waves into the ground, will allow the company to identify potential oil and gas reserves beneath the Coastal Plain’s tundra. SAE’s estimated start date is Dec. 10, 2018. According to the application, the seismic testing will continue throughout the winter and could continue again next winter if it cannot be completed during the 2018/2019 season. However, BLM will likely need to conduct an environmental review of the plan for seismic testing which could delay the process.
Nov. 8, 2018 Defenders of Wildlife files a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Department of Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management seeking responses to requests submitted pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. Since February of 2018, Defenders of Wildlife has submitted six requests to the agencies for records related to oil and gas exploration, leasing, and development in the Arctic Refuge. All three agencies have yet to provide any records, such as agency correspondence or unpublished documents, in response to the requests. Defenders of Wildlife v. Dept. of Interior, et. al., No. 18-2572 (Dist. of D.C.).
Dec. 20, 2018 BLM releases a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for leasing in the Coastal Plains area of the Arctic Refuge, describing four alternatives. The comment period is extended through March 13, 2019.
Jan. 9, 2019 BLM postpones its scheduled public meetings on the Coastal Plain drilling plan, setting no new dates. BLM continues to work on the Arctic Refugedevelopment plans despite the current partial government shutdown.
Jan. 30, 2019 BLM reschedules public meetings on the draft EIS for the Coastal Plains drilling plan. Dates in Alaska and Washington D.C. range from Feb. 4 through Feb. 13.
Feb. 5. 2019 DOI announces at a public meeting that no seismic exploration will begin during this winter’s ice road construction season. Interior indicated that the permit application will be amended to reflect a December 2019 start date.
March 13, 2019 Sixteen state attorneys general submit joint comments alleging that the draft environmental impact statement is inadequate and does not comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act – the statute that governs environmental impact statements.
July 31, 2019 Alaska Natives and environmental groups file suit against the DOI alleging failure to produce documents required under FOIA that would provide a look at how oil and gas leasing decisions in the Arctic Refuge were made. The FOIA requests—submitted in 2018 and 2019—encompass documents used to produce the draft EIS for leasing, communications and records relating to lease sale activities during the 2018–2019 government shutdown, and the Porcupine Caribou Treaty between the United States and Canada. According to the filing, DOI has not produced any documents in response to the FOIA requests and dozens of follow-up communications.
Sept. 12, 2019 BLM releases the final environmental impact statement, which allows oil and gas leasing on 1.56 million acres of the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain. BLM’s chosen plan permits the agency to lease the maximum number of acres available and is the least environmentally protective of the alternatives BLM considered.
Feb. 18, 2020 The Fish and Wildlife Service seeks public comment on a federal, peer-reviewed study of the impact of seismic surveys on polar bears in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal Plain. While seismic activity threatens denning polar bears and their cubs, the study concludes that “careful planning on the timing and distribution of proposed activities” could significantly reduce potential impacts. Comments will be accepted via email until April 20, 2020.
Aug. 17, 2020 Secretary Bernhardt signs the Record of Decision, authorizing oil and gas leasing on 1.56 million acres of the Coastal Plain. Pursuant to Congress’ directive, BLM must hold the first lease sale of at least 400,000 acres by December 22, 2021.
Aug. 24, 2020 The Gwich’in Steering Committee along with conservation groups and a separate coalition of environmental organizations file two lawsuits challenging BLM’s oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic Refuge. They allege the plan violates multiple statutes, including the Endangered Species Act and NEPA. Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00204 (D. Alaska); National Audubon Society v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00205 (D. Alaska).
Sept. 9, 2020 Fifteen states led by Washington file a lawsuit challenging BLM’s oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic Refuge. Washington v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00224 (D. Alaska).
Sept. 9, 2020 Three Gwich’in tribes file a lawsuit challenging BLM’s oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic Refuge. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00223 (D. Alaska).
Oct. 1, 2020 A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study finds proposed oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain could impact 34 percent of maternal polar bear dens in the U.S. Arctic. USGS Director James Reilly delayed the study’s release for three months to investigate the study’s underlying science, despite the approval of top agency scientists. The Fish and Wildlife Service must cite the report in deciding whether to approve the ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project on Alaska’s North Slope in the National Petroleum Reserve.
Oct. 23, 2020 BLM releases a proposal for seismic testing in the 1002 Area of the Arctic Refuge, based on a proposal from the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation. Department of Interior rejected a similar application in Feb. 2019.
Oct. 26, 2020 The Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. submits a plan of operations for seismic survey operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that will provide data on oil and natural gas mineral deposits below the refuge. BLM will hold a two-week public comment period, closing Nov. 6, 2020.
Nov. 9, 2020 The Interior Board of Land Appeals confirms that the Staines River distributary of the Canning River marks the northwestern boundary of the Arctic Refuge, thus including 20,000 acres in the Refuge. The State of Alaska newly disputed the boundary in 2014.
Nov. 16, 2020 The Alaska Oil & Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute file to intervene in Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00223 (D. Alaska).
Nov. 17, 2020 BLM issues a “call for nominations” inviting representatives from the oil and gas sector to nominate tracts of land for auction. The Trump administration hopes to complete the first-ever auction and lease of the Arctic Refuge land for drilling before the inauguration of President-elect Biden.
Dec. 7, 2020 BLM sets a lease sale for the Coastal Plain for January 6, 2021. BLM is scheduling the lease sale before the end of the call for nominations period in which companies tell the agencies which areas they would like the agency to include in the lease sale.
Dec. 8, 2020 The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) releases a report finding that pre-drilling seismic surveys in the Arctic Refuge will harass, but not injure or kill, polar bears. The report is a precursor to the agency issuing an incidental take permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. for seismic surveys to assess the fossil fuel potential in the coastal plain.
Dec. 15, 2020 Plaintiffs in Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Bernhardt file a motion to prevent BLM from issuing oil and gas leases and authorizing seismic testing in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge while the case is underway. No. 3:20-cv-00204 (D. Alaska).
Dec. 16, 2020 BLM releases an Environmental Assessment (EA) and draft Finding of No New Significant Impact (FONNSI) for the proposed seismic exploration in the Coastal Plain of the ANWR. The comment period closes Dec. 30, 2020.
Dec. 16, 2020 More than 100 lawmakers, led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), write to Secretary Bernhardt opposing BLM’s plans to conduct a lease sale in the Arctic Refuge and seismic exploration on the Coastal Plain. In their letter, House representatives argue that the administration “cut corners” violating a host of laws including ANILCA, NEPA, and the ESA. Read the Senate letter here and the House letter here.
Dec. 21, 2020 BLM reduces the area of the Arctic Refuge available for lease by about 30%, but will proceed with the lease sale for oil exploration on Jan. 6.
Jan. 5, 2021 Judge Gleason of the District Court of the District of Alaska denies plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented the federal government from going forward with the Coastal Plain lease sale planned for Jan. 6. Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00204 (D. Alaska).
Jan. 6, 2021 The Department of the Interior holds a lease sale for 22 sections of the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain. Only half of the sections offered for sale receive bids, and in all but two cases, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is the sole bidder.
Jan 19, 2021 BLM’s Alaska branch conveys nine of the 11 leases sold in the Jan. 6 sale, totaling 437,804 acres.
Early Biden Actions
Jan. 20, 2021 President Biden issues an Executive Order placing a temporary moratorium on all activities relating to BLM’s Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The order also explicitly grants the Attorney General authority to stay or otherwise delay related litigation.