A mountainous landscape in the background; a bright, clear pond in the mid-ground; grassy, slightly hilly land in the foreground.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Drilling

The Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge (Arc­tic Refuge) is a pris­tine wilder­ness reserve in north­ern Alas­ka that hosts a diverse array of arc­tic and sub­arc­tic wildlife, includ­ing migra­to­ry birds, cari­bou herds and polar bears. The Arc­tic Refuge is the nation’s largest wildlife refuge at 19.3 mil­lion acres. As the tra­di­tion­al birthing area for the por­cu­pine cari­bou herd, the 1.6 mil­lion-acre Coastal Plain region with­in the Arc­tic Refuge has been described as the bio­log­i­cal heart” of the Refuge.

Leas­ing Program

2017-2021

  • Novem­ber 2017

    The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (Tax Act) direct­ed the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or to estab­lish an oil and gas pro­gram for the Arc­tic Refuge’s Coastal Plain and then to con­duct at least two oil and gas lease sales in the Coastal Plain region with­in 10 years of enact­ment of the leg­is­la­tion. The oil and gas leas­ing pro­gram was pro­ject­ed to gen­er­ate $1.1 bil­lion in fed­er­al rev­enue to off­set fed­er­al rev­enue lost as a result of the legislation.

  • Decem­ber 2018

    In Decem­ber 2018, the Depart­ment of Interior’s Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) released a draft Envi­ron­men­tal Impact State­ment (DEIS) to imple­ment the tax legislation’s oil and gas leas­ing program.

  • March 2019

    In March 2019, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son and Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mau­ra Healey led a coali­tion of six­teen attor­neys gen­er­al in sub­mit­ting com­ments high­light­ing sev­er­al defi­cien­cies with the DEIS. Among oth­er points includ­ed in the com­ments, the DEIS fails to ana­lyze how oil and gas oil devel­op­ment will gen­er­ate $1.1 bil­lion in fed­er­al rev­enue, giv­en the high cost of pro­duc­ing oil and gas in the Coastal Plain and the uncer­tain long-term need for oil pro­duced in the Arctic.

    BLM also fails to con­sid­er alter­na­tives that would min­i­mize envi­ron­men­tal harm with­in the eco­log­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive and diverse Coastal Plain. Last­ly, the attor­neys gen­er­al note that the DEIS is fatal­ly flawed under the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act (NEPA) because it declines to con­sid­er the cli­mate change costs of green­house gas emis­sions emit­ted via the pro­duc­tion and com­bus­tion of oil and nat­ur­al gas. 

  • Sep­tem­ber 2019

    BLM issued the final Envi­ron­men­tal Impact State­ment (FEIS) in Sep­tem­ber 2019, choos­ing as the pre­ferred alter­na­tive an option that would allow for the entire pro­gram area to be leased.

  • August 2020

    In August 2020, BLM issued a record of deci­sion final­iz­ing a leas­ing pro­gram to open the Arc­tic Refuge’s Coastal Plain’s entire pro­gram­mat­ic area to oil and gas drilling. Accord­ing to the plan, the first auc­tion will take place by Decem­ber 22, 2021 with a sec­ond lease sale before Decem­ber 222024.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2020

    In Sep­tem­ber 2020, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son and Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Healey led a coali­tion of fif­teen attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing a law­suit in fed­er­al dis­trict court in Alas­ka chal­leng­ing the August 2020 record of deci­sion and FEIS. The law­suit con­tains five claims that BLM’s actions to open up the Coastal Plain to oil and gas drilling vio­lates mul­ti­ple fed­er­al statutes, includ­ing NEPA, the Nation­al Wildlife Refuge Sys­tem Admin­is­tra­tion Act, the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act (ANIL­CA), the Admin­is­tra­tive Pro­ce­dure Act (APA) and the Tax Act. The attor­neys gen­er­al request that the court vacate the record of deci­sion and FEIS and enter injunc­tive relief to pre­vent irrepara­ble harm from imple­ment­ing a leas­ing pro­gram based on the unlaw­ful record of deci­sion and FEIS.

  • Novem­ber 2020

    In Novem­ber 2020, BLM pub­lished a call for nom­i­na­tions and com­ments for tracts of land for oil and gas drilling in the Arc­tic Refuge. Before the com­ment peri­od closed, BLM pub­lished a notice of sale in Decem­ber 2020 announc­ing an Arc­tic Refuge lease sale sched­uled for Jan­u­ary 6, 2021. Tak­ing these steps out of sequence — pub­lish­ing a notice of sale ten days pri­or to the clos­ing of the pub­lic com­ment peri­od for BLM’s call for nom­i­na­tions — was high­ly unusu­al and poten­tial­ly unlaw­ful. The rel­e­vant reg­u­la­tions require that a detailed state­ment of the sale, includ­ing a descrip­tion of the areas to be offered for lease, the lease terms, con­di­tions and spe­cial stip­u­la­tions and how and where to sub­mit bids shall be made avail­able to the pub­lic imme­di­ate­ly after pub­li­ca­tion of the notice of sale.”

  • Decem­ber 2020

    Lat­er in Decem­ber, Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Healey and Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son led a coali­tion of 13 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the lease sale notice. The coali­tion urged BLM not to issue a new notice of lease sale until after the pub­lic com­ment peri­od closed and BLM thor­ough­ly reviewed and con­sid­ered all nom­i­na­tions, infor­ma­tion, and com­ments received through the Decem­ber 17 dead­line. The attor­neys gen­er­al crit­i­cized BLM for aban­don­ing estab­lished prac­tice and dis­re­gard­ing the reg­u­la­to­ry process, and ques­tioned the legal­i­ty of the lease sale giv­en its reliance on a defi­cient and unlaw­ful envi­ron­men­tal review and record of decision.

    Again in Decem­ber, a coali­tion of 14 attor­neys gen­er­al led by Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son and Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mau­ra Healey filed an ami­cus brief in sup­port of envi­ron­men­tal groups seek­ing a pre­lim­i­nary injunc­tion to halt the lease sale. The attor­neys gen­er­al warned that allow­ing the admin­is­tra­tion to pro­ceed with its rushed leas­ing pro­gram would have long-last­ing impacts on the Coastal Plain, indus­tri­al­iz­ing and pol­lut­ing the del­i­cate tun­dra ecosys­tem, alter­ing water sys­tems, and harm­ing migra­to­ry birds and oth­er wildlife. The coali­tion empha­sized that grant­i­ng a pre­lim­i­nary injunc­tion would pre­serve the envi­ron­men­tal sta­tus quo in the Nation­al Wildlife Refuge Sys­tem and force BLM to pro­ceed at a pace that ful­ly allows for pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion and care­ful agency delib­er­a­tion con­sis­tent with the pub­lic interest.

  • Jan­u­ary 2021

    The court ulti­mate­ly did not grant a pre­lim­i­nary injunc­tion, and BLM announced the results of the lease sale on Jan­u­ary 6. The bureau received few bids, yield­ing a mere $7 mil­lion in fed­er­al rev­enue. No major oil and gas com­pa­nies sub­mit­ted bids, and the biggest bid­der in the auc­tion was an eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion owned by the state of Alas­ka. Lat­er in Jan­u­ary, BLM issued 9 of the 11 leas­es sold on Jan­u­ary 6. As of June 2021, the case was stayed.

Seis­mic Test­ing Activity

2017-2021

  • Octo­ber 2020

    In Octo­ber 2020, BLM released the Kak­tovik Inu­pait Corporation’s pro­posed plan to con­duct seis­mic sur­veys for oil and gas deposits in the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain. The pro­pos­al would sub­ject over 450,000 acres of the Arc­tic Refuge’s Coastal Plain to seis­mic test­ing and allow con­struc­tion of hun­dreds of miles of snow access trails, mul­ti­ple airstrips, and thou­sands of miles of receiv­er lines. Despite the ongo­ing lit­i­ga­tion chal­leng­ing BLM’s deci­sion to move for­ward with its leas­ing pro­gram, BLM allowed only a brief 14-day com­ment peri­od on the Kak­tovik Inu­pait Corporation’s proposal. 

  • Novem­ber 2020

    In Novem­ber 2020, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son led a coali­tion of 14 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the pro­pos­al. In the com­ment let­ter, the attor­neys gen­er­al not­ed that the pro­pos­al is expect­ed to sig­nif­i­cant­ly impact the envi­ron­ment, includ­ing essen­tial habi­tat for polar bears, cari­bou, and migra­to­ry birds, yet BLM has not con­duct­ed a detailed envi­ron­men­tal review of the pro­pos­al, as required by NEPA. The coali­tion also point­ed out that BLM has failed to con­sid­er the pur­pos­es for which Con­gress cre­at­ed the Arc­tic Refuge and how the pro­pos­al will be com­pat­i­ble with those pur­pos­es. The attor­neys gen­er­al urged BLM to com­plete an ade­quate envi­ron­men­tal review and pub­lic com­ment peri­od pri­or to autho­riz­ing seis­mic activ­i­ty in the region.