ANWR Oil Lease Auction Brings Few Bidders
Federal judge declines to block auction, but lawsuits to protect preserve’s wildlife continue

by Hank Lacey
Law Week watermark

The country’s largest national wildlife refuge was on the auction block last week as the Trump administration sold fossil fuel exploration leases that could lead to the conversion of its fragile  coastal plain to an oil field. The move brings the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closer to industrialization than it has been during more than 40 years since an ongoing fight over preservation of its wilderness qualities began.

The Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday auctioned 10-year access rights to about 550,000 acres in a portion of ANWR known as the Section 1002 area, the easternmost section of Alaska’s North Slope that lies east of Prudhoe Bay, site of the country’s largest oil field, and the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska.

Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil & Gas Association, said the industry believes there are 6-10 billion barrels of oil beneath the coastal plain, based on a 1987 estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey. “There’s probably more there than that, but that’s what they think is economically recoverable,” she said. The field at Prudhoe Bay has produced about 15 billion barrels of petroleum, or about one-fifth of all U.S. consumption since its exploitation began.

Three bidders — two small companies and Alaska’s economic development corporation — participated in the lease sale. Despite a Congressional Budget Office projection that ANWR leases would generate $1 billion to offset the loss of more than $1 trillion in government revenues from tax cuts, the lease sale drew a total of $14.4 million in bids. The lower-than-projected proceeds are consistent with a prediction by Taxpayers for Common Sense, which concluded in an August 2019 report that the U.S. government is likely to receive only 4.6% of the revenues anticipated by Congress when the ANWR coastal plain leasing was mandated.

This complete article appears in the Jan. 11 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.