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Trump Administration Finalizes Plans To Allow Oil Drilling In Arctic Refuge


The Trump administration is pushing ahead with plans to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Environmental groups say they will sue. As Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media reports, the decision is a key moment in a long environmental battle.

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: The coastal plain of the refuge is a place where caribou give birth and polar bears make their dens. Environmental groups call it the biological heart of a priceless ecosystem. The area is also believed to contain a lot of oil. Sierra Club lobbyist Athan Manuel has been fighting to keep rigs out of the refuge for more than 20 years. He says the Trump administration is rushing to get at least one company to bid on leases before the end of President Trump's term and the possible arrival of a new president who opposes drilling.

ATHAN MANUEL: I think they just want to ram this down people's throats to show that they can still drill where they want to drill and still prop up the oil industry even in the face of the evidence of climate change.

RUSKIN: Once drilling rights are sold, it will be harder for a future president to reverse course. But Manuel says the administration is making a fateful decision by not doing enough to protect polar bears.

MANUEL: We have a lot of leverage in the courts under the Endangered Species Act to push back aggressively, and that's we're going to do. We're not certainly giving up.

RUSKIN: Drilling advocates like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski like to point out that the coastal plain is a relatively small area on the edge of a refuge the size of South Carolina. She is largely responsible for including oil development in the tax bill Congress passed in 2017. Murkowski says oil development on Alaska's North Slope is always done with utmost care for the wildlife and the land itself.


LISA MURKOWSKI: The environmental safeguards are such that you can't take exploration rigs out on the tundra in the summer where it might leave a mark. No. We wait until it's the coldest, the darkest. The ground is frozen as far as it possibly can.

RUSKIN: Today's decision doesn't set a date for the oil lease sale, but Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says it could happen soon.

DAVID BERNHARDT: I do believe that there certainly could be a lease sale by the end of the year.

RUSKIN: It's not clear, though, that oil companies will want to bid. Oil prices have been pummeled by the pandemic, and several major financial institutions have pledged not to finance efforts to develop this part of the arctic.

For NPR News, I'm Liz Ruskin in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF UYAMA HIROTO SONG, "YIN AND YANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liz Ruskin (APM)