In a last-minute push, the Trump administration announced Thursday that it will auction off drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in just over a month, setting up a final showdown with opponents before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The announcement of a lease sale comes sooner than some expected: The Bureau of Land Management did not wait for the comment and nominations period to officially end before scheduling a sale date.
The sale, which is now set for Jan. 6, could cap a bitter, decades-long battle over whether to drill in the coastal plain, and it seals the administration's efforts to open the land to development. But the Trump administration's plan for the sale may also draw legal challenges from drilling opponents, who could target the aggressive timeline in court.
Environmental groups have vowed to continue to fight to keep drill rigs out of the coastal plain and have filed lawsuits challenging the Trump administration's environmental reviews.
Biden has also said he opposes drilling in the refuge. But if leases are finalized before he takes office Jan. 20, they could be difficult to revoke.
The coastal plain covers about 1.6 million acres, an area roughly the size of Delaware, and makes up about 8% of the vast refuge. It's home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife. It's also thought to hold billions of barrels of oil.
The Trump administration started the formal process of selling oil rights in the coastal plain on Nov. 17, when it launched the "call for nominations," a 30-day window for oil companies to confidentiality tell the government which pieces of land they would like included in a lease sale. That comment period ends Dec. 17.
Under a lease-sale agreement, the company would lease the land from the government and purchase it at the end of the lease term.
To the west, in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the government has waited until the comment period closes before providing notice of a lease sale. It must provide at least 30 days notice before holding a sale.
It remains unclear who might show up to a coastal plain lease sale. Oil and gas companies aren't talking publicly about whether they plan to bid.