September 23, 2019
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Trump's plans for oil drilling in Arctic refuge clear big hurdle

By Timothy Puko

Washington DC, Sep 12 (efe-epa).- The administration of United States President Donald Trump said on Thursday that oil drilling in part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would have a negligible environmental impact, clearing the way for lease sales to oil companies this year, according to EFE/Dow Jones.

The finding by the US Department of Interior was backed by Alaskan officials and others who called it a critical step in decades of work to open the wildlife refuge to oil interests.

"Forty years after Congress selected the Arctic Coastal Plain for potential energy development, the Trump administration is making good on that decades-old potential," Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said.

But environmentalists were quick to react. The National Resources Defense Council said it planned to challenge in court the environmental assessment hours after it was released.

"We will indeed sue," the NRDC's Anne Hawke said.

The refuge in Alaska's northeast corner is the country's largest wildlife preserve and, nearly void of people and roads, may be the country's largest remaining pristine wilderness.

It is now closer to widespread drilling than ever before with Trump and Republicans in Congress pushing to use their window of power to give oil companies unprecedented access.

Thursday's finalized environmental impact statement represents a setback to environmentalists and Democrats still trying to fight a 2017 law that required the government to open the refuge for oil drilling.

Earlier Thursday, the Democratic-led House approved a bill to repeal that mandate. It has little chance to go further this year, but opponents hope they might fare better if Democrats win the White House and Senate in 2020.

"There are some places too wild, too important, too unique to be spoiled by oil-and-gas development," said Rep. ared Huffman, the California Democrat who wrote the bill. "The Arctic Refuge's Coastal Plain is one of those special places."

Interior Department officials said their findings suggest oil drilling can happen in the coastal plain at the northern tip of the refuge without spoiling the area.

The plan they are moving forward with would allow the industry to disturb the earth for its drilling pads, processing plants and roads on just 0.01 percent of the refuge's 19 million acres. Massive pipelines that hover over the ground, however, are largely not counted toward that limit.

The plan will include a ban on any activity along the plain's biggest rivers and in its far northwestern corner to protect caribou calving grounds, officials said, while US Fish and Wildlife Service determinations may also block off future areas in later decisions on project permits.

And for two months of the year, all work will be banned in an area that covers a little less than half the plain.

Opponents have been skeptical of the rigor behind the department's scientific assessment in part because of it completed the review in less than two years, much shorter than typical for reviews of this scope.

Finishing the lease sale soon would be a big step forward for ensuring the refuge does see oil development. If Trump loses re-election in 2020 to an opponent who wants to block drilling there, a contractual obligation in place with an oil company would make it much harder to undo the drilling plan, legal experts said.

"This Arctic National Wildlife Refuge leasing plan is another disgraceful example of the Trump administration's continued rejection of environmental law, sound science and the wishes of the American people in protecting wildlife and wild lands," Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president of the group Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement. "We will see them in court for this reckless effort to turn this iconic American landscape into an industrial oil field."

The refuge has been controversial almost since its conception. It was originally protected by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 before Congress formally created the refuge in 1980. By then, prospects for major oil finds had drawn interest from major oil companies. Congress responded both with further protection and parameters for early studies of how much oil might be there and how safely drillers could reach it.

A drilling program for the area became a long-sought dream for Alaskan lawmakers, who rely on oil revenue to bolster the state's economy and its government budgets.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK), whose vote was seen as crucial to approving the tax overhaul in 2017, successfully pushed for language in the bill to start requiring oil-lease sales for most of the refuge's coast. It aimed to raise $1 billion in revenue to offset new tax cuts.

There were questions about that plan from the start. Shale drilling in more accessible parts of the country has vastly cut the industry's interest in remote, environmentally-sensitive Alaska. The shale boom also has helped spur a global supply glut, keeping prices low and reducing the urgency to find more domestic oil.

Other critics have questioned whether Interior has acted in good faith in assessing environmental risks during a rush to start a leasing program while Trump is still president.

The Interior official spearheading the Arctic Refuge, Joe Balash, resigned late last month and days later began a position at a company called Oil Search, which has recently become a major player in Alaska prospecting.

Broadly, drilling in the refuge appears to be politically unpopular. A Yale University poll taken in December 2017 as Congress considered opening the area for drilling, showed the idea was opposed by 70 percent of US voters, including a slim majority of Republicans. EFE-EPA

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