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Interior to begin process of oil and gas leasing in Arctic refuge this month

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The Trump administration will begin the process to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. Republicans last year were successful in achieving their long-pursued goal to allow energy exploration in the area as part of their tax overhaul legislation. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File)

The Trump administration this month will begin the process of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas leasing.

Interior Department officials visited Alaskan communities this week to let them know the agency in March will publish a notice in the Federal Register of its intent to do a draft environmental impact statement for energy leasing in the refuge, known as ANWR.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said this week that the Interior Department could have the first lease sale to oil and gas drillers in 2019.

Joe Balash, Interior’s assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management, told local media he is hopeful the agency can meet that goal.

Balash is Sullivan’s former chief of staff.

"I worked with Sen. Sullivan a long time," Balash said, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "He's got very ambitious goals for us. Whether we can meet them, we'll see, but we're not wasting any time here."

Balash said the notice in the Federal Register will start a "scoping period" opening the "opportunity for people to talk to us about a range of issues needing to be considered" during the development of a draft environmental impact statement, before Interior develops a final statement.

ANWR was created under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960. In 1980, Congress provided additional protections to the refuge but set aside a 1.5 million-acre section known as the “1002 area,” where billions of barrels of crude oil lie beneath the coastal plain, for study and future drilling if lawmakers approved it.

Republicans last year were successful in achieving their long-pursued goal to allow energy exploration in the area as part of their tax overhaul legislation.

Democrats and environmentalists say drilling would harm the ecosystem of what they describe as one of the wildest places left on Earth, inhabited by animals such as polar bears, caribou, and arctic foxes.

Republicans expect drilling in ANWR to raise $1 billion over a decade to help pay for tax reform, but Democrats contend that won’t happen, with low oil prices and steep competition from natural gas.

Under the tax law, the Interior Department must hold the first lease sale by 2021 and another by 2024, with at least 400,000 acres available each time.

Environmental groups charged Thursday that Interior would be shortchanging the public engagement process if it tried to beat that timeline.

“The Trump administration is in a headlong rush to sell off America’s public lands for development, and cannot possibly complete important processes or fully consider the concerns of local communities in their attempt to drill at the earliest possible date,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society. “Their haste will not allow time to evaluate relevant information or make informed decisions about the negative impacts of oil and gas development on the sensitive coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Sales don’t necessarily translate to quick energy development.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said this week that drilling in ANWR is at least a decade away.