Trump admin kicks off major step toward Alaska refuge drilling

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The Trump administration is taking a major step toward allowing oil and natural gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a notice Thursday that it is starting the “scoping” process for an environmental review to examine the impact of leasing drilling rights to companies in ANWR’s 1.6 million-acre Coastal Plain.

The BLM will take public comments for 60 days and hold four public meetings in Alaska to inform how it will conduct the environmental review, it said in the notice set to be published Friday in the Federal Register.

The notice comes just four months after Congress voted to allow drilling in the federally owned ANWR for the first time.

Democrats had for decades successfully blocked efforts to open ANWR to rigs, but the GOP pushed the measure through as part of its Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

That law requires the BLM to hold at least two drilling rights lease sales in the next 10 years.

Joseph Balash, Interior’s assistant secretary for land and mineral management, said last month that the first lease sale could be as soon as next year, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Drilling is still multiple steps away, including a draft environmental review, a final review, lease sales and applications to drill, with potential lawsuits at many steps.

ANWR drilling opponents accused the Trump administration of rushing the process toward drilling, and pledged to fight the administration at every step.

“It is shameful that on the anniversary of our nation’s worst environmental disaster, the Trump administration announces plans to open pristine wild lands to more destructive oil drilling,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement, referring to Friday’s eighth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, which started an 87-day oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Trump administration’s reckless dash to expedite drilling and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will only hasten a trip to the courthouse. We will not stand by and watch them desecrate this fragile landscape,” she said.

“The Trump administration’s headlong rush to drill America’s last great wilderness is reckless and wrong,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

“The administration’s short cuts toward a sell-out of the Arctic Refuge are legally risky and are sure to add another stain to Secretary [Ryan] Zinke’s shameful anti-conservation record.”

The Coastal Plain holds as much as 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to federal estimates. It has long been a priority of Alaska leaders to open the area to drilling.

But Democrats and conservationists have fought back consistently. The Coastal Plain area hosts major populations of caribou, polar bears, waterbird species and seals, which conservationists say would be threatened by drilling activity.