In 2018, the Trump administration estimated opening Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development would generate $1.8 billion in federal revenue over a decade. Independent analysts dismissed that economic outlook as, among other things, a “pipe dream.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as pro-Trump extremists violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in a naked attempt to subvert American democracy, the Trump administration held its long-anticipated, highly controversial Arctic refuge lease sale.
Just three entities — two small oil companies and an Alaska state-owned economic development corporation ― bid on roughly half of the 1.09 million acres up for grabs. The sale generated a measly $14.4 million, less than 1% of the administration’s total revenue estimates. That’s an average of $27 per acre, only slightly above the $25 minimum bid price.
The state agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, placed the top bid on all but two of the 11 tracts that received bids. The revenues from the leases, if ultimately approved, will be split 50/50 between the federal government and the state of Alaska.
Much as the rioting in D.C. on Wednesday capped Trump’s long record of inciting political violence, the lease sale is a fitting finale for the administration’s anti-conservation legacy. Trump and his team have spent four years bending over backward for fossil fuel and other extractive industries, with little concern for how its “energy dominance” agenda will impact the climate and wildlife.
Trump and his team have made greenlighting oil drilling in the Arctic refuge a top priority, despite worsening climate and biodiversity crises and warnings from scientists, environmentalists and a bipartisan group of former Interior Department officials that doing so would forever spoil one of the nation’s last true wilderness areas.
The refuge, often described as “America’s Serengeti,” covers more than 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. It is home to polar bears, caribou, moose and hundreds of species of migratory birds. For decades, Republicans and energy companies have been trying to gain access to the oil beneath the refuge’s coastal plain, known as the “1002 Area.”
The GOP tax law passed by Congress in late 2017 included a provision, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), requiring the Interior Department to approve at least two lease sales for drilling — each covering no less than 400,000 acres. Since then, the Trump administration has been in a race to approve leases, at times ignoring and altering career scientists’ work in an effort to downplay the potential environmental impacts, as Politico reported in 2019.
Jenny Rowland-Shea, a senior public lands policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Wednesday’s auction is “the logical conclusion to this completely flawed effort: a massive failure.”
“The process of getting to this lease sale has been nothing short of a sham and all eyes should be on a robust antitrust review,” she said in a statement. “Either the courts, President-elect Biden, or the new Congress should have no problem rejecting these bids.”
Autumn Hanna, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, called it “a bust for taxpayers.”
“Holding this lease sale at the 11th hour of this Administration, during the pandemic when oil demand is low and prices in flux, all but doomed this already questionable sale from the start,” she said. “Now taxpayers will have to deal with the fallout.”
The eleventh-hour lease sale comes less than two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden assumes office. Biden has repeatedly vowed to block oil drilling in the refuge, although active leases are likely to prove difficult to revoke.
Despite the severe lack of industry interest on Wednesday, Murkowski called it “a great day and the result of many Alaskans’ tireless efforts over the course of decades.”
“The first lease sale in the non-wilderness 1002 Area did not occur under ideal conditions, but it will benefit Alaskans both in the short-term and well into the future,” she said in a statement.