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The Trump administration has fewer than three weeks to go and is working to lock in oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's holding an oil lease sale next week. Tegan Hanlon of Alaska's Energy Desk reports it's unclear how much oil is under the refuge.
TEGAN HANLON, BYLINE: Supporters of drilling in the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain often point to its oil potential as a reason to develop the remote stretch of land. President Donald Trump has described it as...
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One of the great sites of energy in the world.
HANLON: But while geologists say the rock formations, oil seeps and old seismic results seem promising, the data available is still limited.
DAVID HOUSEKNECHT: We don't know very much about this area.
HANLON: David Houseknecht is a senior research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. And he helped with the agency's last assessment of oil potential in Alaska's coastal plain back in the late 1990s. The USGS calculated anywhere from about 4 to 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Houseknecht says that's a whole lot of oil but also a huge range, in part because it's based on seismic data from the 1980s. Technology has come a long way since then.
HOUSEKNECHT: Going into a lease sale in the coastal plain with the only data being 35-year-old 2D data is quite unusual.
HANLON: Houseknecht says what's also missing from the USGS assessment is any data from actual wells in the refuge. There's been just one exploratory well drilled in the coastal plain, also back in the '80s, on Alaska native land. But the results of that test well are a closely-guarded secret.
MARK MYERS: I signed a confidentiality agreement, and it didn't have an end date on it.
HANLON: Mark Myers, a geologist and former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, is one of the few people who have seen the results from the test well, outside of the big oil companies that paid for it.
MYERS: So I can't comment on it in terms of what I saw even though it was a lot of years ago.
HANLON: A New York Times investigation based on legal documents suggested the results were not promising. But the amount of oil is just one factor companies will consider when deciding whether to bid in the Alaska lease sale. Another is the money, Meyer says. It's already more expensive to drill in the Arctic compared to, say, Texas. On top of that, oil prices are still low after an oil-price war and the coronavirus pandemic hit the industry hard.
MYERS: The prices have fallen down to a level that leave very little capital for exploration in these companies. So that's one of the biggest negatives.
HANLON: There's also the controversy, says Rowena Gunn, an analyst with the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. The refuge is home to migrating caribou, polar bears and other wildlife. And that has prompted multiple lawsuits to block drilling there. Some big banks cite climate change and say they won't fund oil projects in the Arctic.
ROWENA GUNN: There's a certain amount of, I guess, public opinion that it wouldn't necessarily be good PR for them to be seen as drilling in the Arctic or drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.
HANLON: But perhaps the biggest uncertainty of all is the changing administration. President-elect Joe Biden says he opposes drilling in Alaska's refuge. Although if leases are finalized before he takes office, it's not clear how he would stop it. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Hanlon in Anchorage.
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