The Trump administration on Wednesday found few takers at its sale of drilling leases in a pristine Arctic wildlife refuge, with an Alaska state agency emerging as the sole bidder for most of the acreage.
The sale’s weak results were sure to be a disappointment to Alaska’s decades-long effort to open up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to attract jobs and boost the state’s waning oil production.
Delivering the sale just two weeks before leaving office was one of President Donald Trump’s last-minute efforts to expand fossil fuel and mineral development in the United States. Trump’s successor, President-elect Joe Biden, has pledged to protect ANWR and to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
Environmental groups that have sued to block energy development in ANWR declared the sale a massive failure.
The sale received 16 bids on 12 of the 22 tracts offered, according to a live broadcast at which the bids were revealed. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority was the sole bidder on at least eight of the 12 tracts.
Due to concerns about a lack of participation in the sale, the board of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority held an emergency meeting two days before Christmas at which it authorized spending up to $20 million on ANWR leases.
The agency intends to partner with private companies, it said.
Three of the 16 bids were described as “incomplete” by U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Kate MacGregor.
The sale, at which more than one million acres were offered, generated more than $14.4 million in high bids, MacGregor said, falling far short of a Congressional Budget Office estimate from 2019 that predicted that bids from two ANWR lease sales would reach $1.8 billion over a decade, and that the first sale would produce the highest bids.
Though the refuge’s coastal plain is estimated to contain up to 11.8 billion barrels of oil, it has no roads, established trails, or other infrastructure — factors that likely kept interest from drilling companies to a minimum.
“This lease sale was an epic failure for the Trump administration and the Alaska congressional delegation,” Adam Kolton, executive director of environmental group Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.
Alaska political leaders for years have pushed to open the refuge’s coastal plain to exploration.
But the Indigenous Gwich’in have opposed development in the area, citing concern about the impacts on caribou on which they have relied for subsistence. Conservation groups also have fought drilling in the refuge.