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First lease sale for ANWR takes place in Alaska with limited interest

A U.S. lawsuit against the decision to allow the sales is ongoing.
An aerial view shows the footprint of a test well drilled in the mid-1980’s on land owned by the Kaktovik Native village corporation within the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During its sale of land on Jan. 6, the U.S. government only garnered bids for half of the 22 tracts that were listed as available in the refuge’s coastal plain. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire)

Avdvocates for protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) are calling a recent oil and gas sale by the U.S. government a bust.

The sale was held Jan. 6 as originally scheduled and garnered bids on just half of the 22 tracts that were listed as available in the refuge’s coastal plain. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which held the sale, said the bids were under review.

A state corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, was the sale’s main bidder. Its executive director, Alan Weitzner, in a statement, said in winning nine tracts, “Alaska preserves the right to responsibly develop its natural resources.”

It was unclear what the interest would be from large oil and gas developers. A number of large American and, more recently, Canadian banks have announced they will not find projects in ANWR.

While the project was supported by the Trump administration, president-elect Joe Biden has expressed opposition.

Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said while the sale results “may not have been as robust as we might have expected, industry still supports future access to this area.”

She blamed the results on challenges in the industry rather than issues with public opinion.

“Today’s sale reflects the brutal economic realities the oil and gas industry continues to face after the unprecedented events of 2020, coupled with ongoing regulatory uncertainty,” she said in a statement.

The Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation has proposed seismic exploration in the area and is seeking approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

A U.S. lawsuit against the decision to allow the sales is ongoing. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, joined by a dozen Indigenous and conservation groups, filed the legal challenge this summer.

They had hoped a judge would grant an injunction to delay the sale.

“We will continue to fight this illegal sale in court, and we call on president-elect Biden to act immediately to protect our lands from destructive drilling once and for all,” said Gwich’in Steering Committee Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff in a statement.

“This process was done in a sloppy and very embarrassing way. Especially to the Indigenous people of Alaska and Canada. Listening to corporations and ignoring the tribes shows that they put profit before people. No amount of money is worth losing our identity and way of life. This fight is far from over.”

The Steering Committee includes representation from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation on the Canadian side of the border.

One of the fundamental concerns about the project from the Gwich’in and environmental groups is that development could interfere with the Porcupine caribou herd. The herd uses the coastal plain as an important calving ground during their annual migration cycle.

CPAWS Yukon is the only non-American conservation group to be named in the lawsuit against the oil and gas sales.

Malkolm Boothroyd, the organization’s campaigns coordinator, said he had mixed emotions.

“Obviously, it’s hugely disappointing to see them get as far as this with the sale and seeing these entities bid on the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and these lands that are sacred to the Gwich’in. At the same time it’s encouraging to see just how little interest there was in this lease sale,” he said.

“No major oil companies bid. If the state of Alaska hadn’t stepped in, it would have been a total flop. I think that speaks to all the work over the past four years and over the past four decades to resist drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” he said.

Boothroyd said the lawsuit will continue. The proponents are hoping that if the lawsuit is successful a judge will be able to overturn leases that are sold.

With files from the Associated Press

Contact Haley Ritchie at