On December 28, 2018, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a notice that it had issued a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for leasing portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) for oil and gas drilling. BLM was directed to lease portions of the coastal plain of ANWR for oil and gas extraction by a specially inserted section of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (“Tax Cuts Act”).
Drilling had been banned in ANWR since 1980, but congressional proponents of arctic drilling used the Tax Cuts Act of 2017 (which as a budget bill required only 51, rather than 60, votes to proceed) as a vehicle to move forward with their goals.
Section 20001(c)(1) of the Tax Cuts Act requires Interior to implement the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which includes leasing at least two 400,000-acre tracts of land in ANWR by 2024 for oil and gas extraction. The law specifies that revenue from leases will be split between the State of Alaska and the US Treasury.
The draft EIS issued in December outlines three different frameworks for implementing the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The alternatives different from one another in terms of the amount of land that would be available to lease and the types of restrictions that would be placed on use of the land, and on seasonal timing of activities on the land and adjacent bay. One controversial subject is the amount of protection that should be afforded to the area’s porcupine caribou herd, which is protected through an international agreement between the US and Canada.
Proponents of oil and gas exploration in ANWR say revenue going to the US Treasury could offset lost revenue from the Trump Administration’s tax cuts, and that the revenue going to Alaska would benefit indigenous communities. Additionally, increased domestic fossil fuel extraction could reduce US imports of fossil fuels.
Environmental groups criticize the unusually fast completion of the EIS, arguing that any EIS completed in less than a year for the impact on such a pristine and remote environment could not have been adequately thorough. The accelerated process follows the dictates of a summer 2017 order from the Deputy Secretary of the Interior to streamline National Environmental Policy Act review, and left employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service concerned that their perspective had been ignored in the interest of accelerated review.
Public comments, received in a public comment period that closed February 11, will inform the final EIS. Further NEPA analysis will be required for subsequent steps in the exploration and drilling process. In addition, the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program will have to comply with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which includes protections for subsistence users of ANWR, namely indigenous groups who hunt and eat the wildlife there.
Representatives Jared Huffman and Brian Fitzpatrick have introduced a bipartisan bill in the House that would walk back the provisions of the Tax Cuts Act pushing the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. With a Republican-controlled Senate, however, the bill's chances of being passed into law during the current Congress are slim.