Arctic Drilling Leases Might Not Get Many Takers as Deadline Approaches


Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | December 31, 2020

The Trump administration successfully opened roughly one million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling following his election defeat, but oil companies might not have any interest in buying the 10-year leases.

Today marks the deadline for submitting bids on the oil leases, so the exact number of companies that have expressed interest is unclear. However, there has previously been little indication that oil companies are interested in buying the leases for several reasons. The drilling conditions would be difficult and the cost of locating the oil is high. Many companies are also concerned about damaging their reputation by drilling on previously-protected lands as Alaska natives and environmentalists continue to oppose drilling on the refuge, and many major banks have refused to finance companies who wish to drill there. The oil industry is struggling to make money during the pandemic as global interest shifts to renewable energy sources as it is, so the state of Alaska might be forced to step in and buy the leases itself, according to a New York Times article.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation, recently voted to authorize bidding up to $20 million for some of the oil leases. If the corporation succeeds in securing the leases, the state of Alaska could become the sole owner and would be left with hoping that it can sublease the tracts to someone else if interest in drilling on the refuge ever picks up. There are legal questions as to whether the corporation qualifies as a bidder and ongoing efforts by Alaska natives and environmental groups to halt the bidding and sale of the leases altogether, so it is still unclear how the sales will proceed.

The National Arctic Wildlife Refuge was protected for decades by Democrats in Congress. It provides a sanctuary for polar bears, caribou, migrating waterfowl and other wildlife, and the Trump administration was the first to successfully push a bill through that allowed for drilling on 1.5 million acres of protected land. The Bureau of Land Management was able to remove about half a million acres from the bidding after citing concerns about disturbing caribou calving areas and other wildlife, but about a million acres across 22 tracts are still available. The Bureau of Land Management will reveal the number of bids received once the bids are opened after the submission deadline.