Any sales would be subject to review by agencies in the Biden administration, including the bureau and the Justice Department, a process that could take a month or two. That could allow the Biden White House to refuse to issue the leases, perhaps by claiming that the scientific underpinnings of the plan to allow drilling in the refuge were flawed, as environmental groups have claimed.
In 2017, in a reversal of decades of protections, the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress opened the refuge’s coastal plain to potential oil and gas development.
The coastal plain is thought to overlie geological formations that could hold billions of barrels of oil, although that assessment is based on data collected in the 1980s. Only one exploratory well has ever been drilled in the refuge, and a New York Times investigation found that the results were disappointing.
Should sales proceed, it is unclear how much interest drilling in the refuge will attract from oil companies. It would be at least a decade before any oil would be extracted, and by then the drive to wean the world from fossil fuels may have lessened any need for it. Arctic oil production is also difficult and costly; companies may decide it’s not worth the effort financially. They also may fear the potential impact to their reputations by drilling in such a pristine place.
In August, the Interior Department announced that it had accepted a final environmental review of the lease-sale plan and would begin preparing to auction off acreage. At the time, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he believed that sales could occur before the end of the year.
Environmentalists and other opponents, including a group representing an Alaska Native tribe, the Gwich’in, who live near the refuge, filed suit, claiming that the Interior Department did not adequately take into account the effects of oil and gas development on climate change and on wildlife.
The Gwich’in are especially concerned about the effects on herds of Porcupine caribou, which roam throughout that part of Alaska and neighboring areas in Canada and use the coastal plain for calving. The Gwich’in, who have spiritual ties to the animals and rely on them for food, say even exploratory drilling and its accompanying road building and other activities, could affect calving and ultimately the survival of the herds.