The Interior Department on Thursday took a key step toward allowing oil and gas drilling in a pristine wildlife refuge in Arctic Alaska, putting forth proposals it said would protect the animals there but that would end decades of environmental protections.
The four possible plans, which would determine what parts of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be opened to drilling, were included in a draft environmental report prepared by the Bureau of Land Management.
After a 45-day public comment period, the bureau is expected to select one of the alternatives and approve a final report early next summer. If the process survives expected court challenges by environmental and conservation groups, as well as efforts by the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to slow it down, lease sales for rights to drill for oil and gas could be held before the end of 2019.
Oil company exploration and development plans would require additional studies and approvals, however, so any actual drilling could be a decade or more away.
The draft report, called an environmental impact statement, was issued exactly a year after Congress approved legislation opening the refuge to oil and gas development. “We have undertaken a rigorous effort here,” said Joe Balash, an assistant Interior secretary.
Mr. Balash, who oversees the bureau, said each of the four proposed alternatives had “built-in protections” for the coastal plain, known as the 1002 Area, where the migrating porcupine caribou herd goes to give birth. Of the alternatives, two would exclude one-third of the 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain from any lease sales, while the other two would have no exclusions. In all four, some acreage would be subject to operating restrictions.
Mr. Balash said the department did not have a preferred alternative. “We’re going to wait and see what kind of feedback we get,” he said.
Environmental groups have warned that drilling could harm wildlife in one of the most undisturbed landscapes in the United States. They say the Interior Department is rushing to finish the environmental impact statement because it is determined to sell leases before the 2020 presidential election, when a Democrat could take the White House.
“This isn’t a legitimate effort to look at how to avoid impacts,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “This is a race against a political clock, to get leases before a new administration takes office.”
Even some House Republicans criticized the process. In a letter to the departing interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and six colleagues urged whoever replaces him to conduct a more thorough review of the leasing program.
Objections have also been raised by a Native group that lives south of the refuge, the Gwich’in, which has spiritual ties to the caribou and counts on them for much of their food. “This administration has absolutely no regard to the harm this development will inflict on my people, the impact it will have on wildlife and the environment, and definitely not what it will mean for our climate,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.
But many Alaskans favor drilling in the state, and Natives who live in the coastal plain, including Inupiat, generally support oil development.
A separate, and less rigorous, environmental review of a proposal to conduct seismic surveys in the coastal plain to pinpoint oil and gas reserves is still not complete, Mr. Balash said. Lessening any potential effect on polar bears of that work, which involves heavy trucks traversing the tundra, is causing the delay, he said.
Some scientists and conservation groups have expressed concerns that the seismic work could cause lasting damage to the tundra as well as harm the bears, which are part of a population that is already declining largely because of the effects of climate change on sea ice.
The refuge was created in 1960 and expanded in 1980 to 19 million acres.CreditKatie Orlinsky for The New York Times
Mr. Balash said that more than 70 scientists and specialists “across governments” had worked on the environmental impact statement. But current and former employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service, another Interior agency, have said the process of preparing the statement created friction, with some personnel with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, feeling marginalized as the Bureau of Land Management oversaw the process.
The move to open the coastal plain to oil and gas development is a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s efforts to increase domestic production of fossil fuels while at the same time doing away with policies, many from the Obama administration, that protect the environment and help curb global warming.
The refuge, in the northeastern part of the state on the Beaufort Sea, was created in 1960 and expanded in 1980 to 19 million acres. It is a vast roadless tract, home to migrating birds, the large nomadic porcupine caribou herd and the winter dens of pregnant polar bears.
For four decades, Democrats thwarted efforts to open the area to oil and gas development even as other nearby lands on Alaska’s North Slope were the scene of an oil boom. But with the election of President Trump, Republicans who controlled both houses of Congress saw an opening, inserting language in the 2017 tax bill that framed the issue as a way to raise revenue for the Treasury. That bill passed on a party-line vote on Dec. 20 last year.
The administration moved quickly to develop the plan, holding hearings in Alaska and Washington in May. In keeping with a 2017 Interior Department directive that called for even the most complex environmental impact statements to be finished within a year and be no longer than 300 pages, the Bureau of Land Management aimed to have the environmental impact statement completed by next spring.
That directive was issued by the deputy interior secretary, David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who is seen as a candidate to replace Mr. Zinke when he departs at the end of the year.
Environmental groups and some former Interior Department officials criticized the accelerated timetable, saying it potentially gave short shrift to science and relied on earlier studies that may be outdated, particularly since climate change is rapidly affecting the Arctic.