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Drillers stay away as leases auctioned in Alaskan refuge

by BECKY BOHRER THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | January 7, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.
FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The U.S. government held its first-ever oil and gas lease sale Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an event critics labeled as a bust with major oil companies staying on the sidelines and a state corporation emerging as the main bidder. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)

JUNEAU, Alaska -- The U.S. government held its first-ever oil and gas lease sale Wednesday for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an event critics labeled as a bust with major oil companies staying on the sidelines and a state corporation emerging as the main bidder.

The sale, held as scheduled after a judge Tuesday rejected requests by Indigenous and conservation groups to halt the event, garnered bids on half the tracts that were listed as available in the refuge's coastal plain.

The rugged remote area off the Beaufort Sea is considered sacred by the Indigenous Gwich'in. Critics of the lease sale say the region is special, providing habitat for wildlife including caribou, polar and grizzly bears, wolves and birds, and should be off limits to drilling.

Supporters of drilling have viewed development as a way to bolster oil production, generate revenue and create or sustain jobs.

A state corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, was the main bidder on the leases. Its executive director, Alan Weitzner, in a statement, said in acquiring nine tracts, "Alaska preserves the right to responsibly develop its natural resources."

Messages seeking comment were sent to spokesmen for Alaska's congressional delegation and to the head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, on Twitter, called the lease sale "historic for Alaska and tremendous for America."

"Alaskans have waited two generations for this moment; I stand with them in support of this day," he said.

Kate MacGregor, a deputy Interior Department secretary, said the sale marked, in part, the Trump administration's commitment to working "to fulfill the goal of U.S. energy security for decades to come."

"And when it comes to Arctic national security, today's sale will further demonstrate the United States will have a long-term economic presence," she added.

It was not clear heading into the sale what level of interest there would be among companies. A number of banks had announced plans to stop lending to projects in the Arctic, and President-elect Joe Biden has expressed opposition to drilling in the refuge.

While U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason on Tuesday refused to halt the sale, she has yet to rule on underlying lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the environmental review process undertaken by the federal government.

Chad Padgett, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Alaska state director, defended the review process Wednesday as rigorous and disputed critics' claims that the it has been rushed.

The land management agency has said under an "optimistic, aggressive hypothetical scenario" exploration could begin within two years after a lease sale, with production eight years after a sale.

Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, called the sale "a huge embarrassment" for Alaska's congressional delegation, which supported the decades-long push to open the coastal plain to drilling, and to President Donald Trump's administration.

"Essentially, the Trump administration had a party, hoped the oil industry would show up and it didn't," he said. Kolton called the sale the "death knell for anybody who's arguing that this is going to be an oil jobs and revenue bonanza. I mean, they've just been unmasked."

FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska.  The U.S. government held its first-ever oil and gas lease sale Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an event critics labeled as a bust with major oil companies staying on the sidelines and a state corporation emerging as the main bidder.(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)
FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The U.S. government held its first-ever oil and gas lease sale Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an event critics labeled as a bust with major oil companies staying on the sidelines and a state corporation emerging as the main bidder.(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)
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