Arctic Refuge in Spotlight for 2020 Over 'License to Drill'?

December 11, 2019
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, important habitat for numerous species such as the grizzly bear (above), may be opened for drilling under Trump Administration plans set for 2020. Photo: Judith Slein, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Arctic Refuge in Spotlight for 2020 Over 'License to Drill'? 

By Joseph A. Davis

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

The pristine 19.3 million acre tract of undeveloped land on Alaska’s North Slope known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, has been at the heart of a decades-old debate over balancing national energy needs with environmental protections.

Now the long-standing struggle over drilling for oil in ANWR, which is important habitat for species like caribou, polar bears, wolves, migratory birds and even mosquitos, may finally find resolution in 2020. There will certainly be news worth following. 


Why it matters

The arguments for and against drilling ANWR have been debated for decades. One main argument for doing it is that “we” need the oil. That may not be as true as it once was. 

The United States was “dangerously dependent” on foreign oil when the debate started, but today, it is an oil-exporting country. It is worth asking whether the interests of the nation and its consumers are the same as the interests of the oil companies who will actually get the oil.


One major reason not to drill ANWR 

is that it is a priceless environmental 

treasure that could be irretrievably 

damaged and lost by drilling.


One major reason not to drill ANWR is that it is a priceless environmental treasure that could be irretrievably damaged and lost by drilling. For example, it is the calving ground of the nation’s largest caribou herd. And yes, it is about polar bears

And then there’s climate (subscription required). In short, developing more oil is a commitment to more use of fossil fuel, which locks in more climate-warming carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Many environmentalists, joined by some Dems running for office, think the nation should be veering away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.  


The backstory

Closeup of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. PhotoCarol M. Highsmith/GPA Photo Archive, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

The territory of Alaska became a state in 1959. The largest of U.S. states, it contained 663,000 square miles of mountains, forest and tundra rich with resources, largely undeveloped and very thinly populated. 

It took two more decades of hard and complex politics to reach enough agreement among the many interested parties (including indigenous peoples) to pass the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, which devoted much of the state to development of minerals, timber, and oil and gas — and protected huge tracts as well to parks, forest, refuges and other conservation categories.

Wildlife refuge status, while not the most protective of conservation categories, dedicates land to the main priority of maintaining the integrity of biological systems, while things like recreation, hunting and fishing may be allowed. 

ANWR was set aside for conservation even before ANILCA. And within the larger 19.3 million acres of ANWR, the 1980 ANILCA deal set aside a portion of the coastal plain (1.5 million acres known as the 1002 Area), which could not be drilled without specific approval of Congress. 

Since then, political struggle has been almost continual, an epic tale we don’t have room for here.


Test well results kept secret

Meanwhile, as the U.S. faced an oil-based “energy crisis,” the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was finished in 1977 to bring oil from Prudhoe Bay oilfields to the lower 48. Keeping this pipeline full was an imperative to the oil industry. 

Then in 1986 a consortium of oil companies drilled a single test well (known as KIC-1) on a piece of private land within ANWR — but capped the well and kept the findings a deep secret. Not even the U.S. government knows the well results. 

But calls from the oil industry and the state of Alaska to drill ANWR did not abate. The U.S. Geological Survey, based on other information, has estimated technically recoverable oil within the 1002 area to be between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels. It’s a guess.


Congressional authorization to 

drill ANWR was enacted as part of 

the 2017 GOP tax break bill. 

It seemed a watershed.


In 2016, when Republicans took over House, Senate and White House, pro-drilling Alaskan Lisa Murkowski (R) took over key Senate committee chairmanships and congressional authorization to drill ANWR was enacted as part of the 2017 GOP tax break bill. 

It seemed a watershed. Since then, the Trump Interior Department has been dotting i’s and crossing t’s to make a lease sale happen (may require subscription). This process includes an environmental impact statement.


Energy giant moving on?

Meanwhile, the history of an energy-hungry and fast-warming world has marched on. 

The fracking revolution has produced gushers of crude from the lower 48, and, partly as a result, the world price of oil has stayed steadfastly below the peaks that drove go-go development. Oil companies have abandoned for now their ambitions to drill deeper offshore Alaskan waters.

One telling detail. The oil giant BP, which was part of the consortium that drilled enigmatic KIC-1 well, and thus a co-possessor of the secret data, announced in August 2019 that it was selling its entire Alaska oil portfolio.


The mystery of how much oil 

lies beneath the 1002 area, 

or what the KIC-1 well found, 

remains unsolved.


The reasons, whether economic, political or geologic, remain a bit murky, but it seems that BP sees its future elsewhere. 

The mystery of how much oil lies beneath the 1002 area, or what the KIC-1 well found, remains unsolved. But journalistic sleuthing by the New York Times in April 2019 found that the results may not have been as promising (may require subscription) as many imagined.

The all-knowing market may provide the answer, but it is not telling yet. Trade press have raised a serious question about how intense the bidding on ANWR tracts will actually be. 

One early tip-off may be the bidding results expected this month (subscription required) from the huge lease sale for the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, or NPR-A. Will it show industry interest, or slake the market’s thirst?


Lease sale in an election year

Since Congress authorized it, the Trump Interior Department has sought to progress as quickly as it could through the steps to prepare for an ANWR lease sale. One key Interior official had declared that the administration was determined to hold a lease sale before the end of 2019. 

Interior reached an important milestone when it released a final environmental impact statement (may require subscription) in September 2019. But by November 2019, it became clear that Interior was not going to meet (subscription required) its own end-of-2019 deadline. Waiting periods for procedural steps required to mount the lease sale, set by law and regulations, prevented it.

That kicks any lease sale into 2020 — an election year.

And as 2020 begins, ANWR leasing is still pretty controversial (subscription required). For example, the House, now held by Democrats, voted on Sept. 12, 2019, to pass a bill that would block ANWR drilling, though Senate passage seems very unlikely. A Dem-led appropriations rider could be another distant possibility. 

Even if Interior does pull off a lease sale in early 2020, the sale will face almost certain legal challenges from environmental groups. That will extend the timeline further, possibly past the 2020 election and even the beginning of a new Congress or administration, which might then be able to reverse the decision to drill.


Story ideas

  • The big story ahead will be the lease sale, when it does happen in 2020. Watch for how many companies participate, how many acres are bid on and the amounts of the bids.
  • Look for the lawsuits likely to be filed once the lease sale is announced and held.
  • Look for major PR offensives (subscription required) focused on companies that choose to bid. The buzzword (subscription required) is “reputational risk.”
  • Look for election tie-ins focused on particular Congressional candidates in the 2020 election. 


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: