ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In a last-minute push, the Trump administration has set a date to auction off drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The sale will be January 6. As Tegan Hanlon with Alaska's Energy Desk reports, that could complicate President-elect Joe Biden's promise to prevent drilling in an area that has been protected for decades.
TEGAN HANLON, BYLINE: The lease sale could cement one of the Trump administration's biggest priorities in expanding oil and gas development. But conservation and tribal groups quickly pushed back. They point out that Thursday's announcement came before the end of a comment period in the previous stage in the leasing process. And they say it's another example of the Trump administration cutting corners.
MATT NEWMAN: You're one mile from the finish line and you decide to take a shortcut is what this screams to me. And you hope you don't get caught.
HANLON: That's Matt Newman, a senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage. He represents three Gwich'in tribes who live near the refuge and oppose drilling on the coastal plain because of risk to the migrating caribou that give birth there.
NEWMAN: The Gwich'in name for the coastal plain translates into English as the sacred place where life begins. And it is not a place, in their points of view, that is compatible with or can coexist with oil development.
HANLON: The Gwich'in, conservation groups and 15 other states have already filed lawsuits challenging the Trump administration's environmental review of development in the coastal plain, which is also home to polar bears and other wildlife. But in Kaktovik, the only community inside the coastal plain, some Indigenous Inupiat residents greeted Thursday's announcement with enthusiasm. Matthew Rexford is Kaktovik's tribal administrator, and he says drilling could boost the local economy.
MATTHEW REXFORD: We have watched oil and gas development on the North Slope for almost 50 years, and we believe that through the stringent regulatory environment and oversight of our home rule borough, the North Slope Borough, all impacts from exploration and development can be mitigated to preserve the area.
HANLON: Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, also took Thursday's announcement as good news.
KARA MORIARTY: From an industry standpoint, having a lease sale is the first step of gaining access to responsibly developing resources that are needed to meet global demand.
HANLON: In 2017, a Republican-led Congress passed legislation that opened the coastal plain to drilling and required a lease sale there by the end of 2021. But it's still not clear who might show up to a sale. The pandemic hit the oil industry hard, and oil prices are still low. Plus, several big banks have said they won't fund oil development in the refuge after facing pressure from drilling opponents.
There's also concern about long-term demand as the world moves away from fossil fuels. President-elect Joe Biden says he opposes drilling in the refuge. But if leases are finalized before he takes office on January 20, they could be difficult to revoke.
For NPR News, I'm Tegan Hanlon in Anchorage.
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