The Trump administration gave final approval on Monday for a contentious oil and gas leasing plan on the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where critics worry about the industry’s impact on polar bears, caribou and other wildlife.
The next step, barring lawsuits, will be the actual sale of leases. Development – should it occur – is still years away.
Environmentalists have promised to fight opening up the coastal plain, a 1.56-million acre swath of land along Alaska’s northern Beaufort Sea coast, after the Department of the Interior approved an oil and gas leasing program.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed the Record of Decision, which will determine a programme for where oil and gas leasing will take place.
“The establishment of this program marks a new chapter in American energy independence,” Mr Bernhardt said during a conference call with reporters.
“Years of inaction have given away to an informed and determined plan to responsibly tap ANWR’s energy potential for the American people for generations to come.”
Over the past four decades, Republicans have attempted to open the refuge to drilling.
President Bill Clinton vetoed a Republican bill to allow drilling in 1995, and Democrats blocked a similar plan 10 years later. President Donald Trump insisted Congress include a mandate providing for leasing in the refuge in a 2017 tax bill.
The Interior’s Bureau of Land Management in December 2018 concluded drilling could be conducted within the coastal plain area without harming wildlife.
“Today’s announcement marks a milestone in Alaska’s forty-year journey to responsibly develop our state and our nation’s new energy frontier,” Alaska’s Republican governor Mike Dunleavy said in a statement.
Mr Dunleavy called the decision “a definitive step in the right direction to developing this area’s energy potential,” which he estimated at 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves.