Ice forming on pipelines near the Colville-Delta 5 drilling site on Alaska’s North Slope. Photo: AP

As Congressional Republicans draft a tax bill that could open a portion of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife to drilling, the Trump administration is moving to aggressively expand fossil fuel production elsewhere in the state. On Wednesday, the Bureau of Land Management announced that in December, it will begin selling oil and gas leases on 900 tracts of land—totaling 10.3 million acres—within the National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre swath of largely undisturbed tundra on Alaska’s North Slope.

It’s by far the largest chunk of federal lands ever put up for leasing within the reserve, which saw its first full-scale oil development in 2015. The announcement comes just a day after the Trump administration revealed its intentions to put nearly 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico up for leasing in March 2018—the largest oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history. Both Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico have large oil reserves, and a history of environmentally-devastating spills.

The news was met with cheers from Alaska’s congressional delegation, which has long sought to expand oil and gas drilling on federally owned and oil-rich lands.

“I welcome the BLM’s announcement today,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said in a statement. “Exploration and development of the NPR-A offers a promising opportunity to fill TAPS,” the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System that runs the length of the state from the North Slope to Valdez.

“I thank the administration for recognizing that Alaska has a leading role to play in America’s energy dominance,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), a key proponent of opening up the ANWR reserve, added.

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The 10.3 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve that’ll soon be up for leasing constitute all of the land the Trump administration is allowed to sell under the Integrated Activity Plan put in place by Obama in 2013. But even more troubling to environmentalists, portions of the 11 million acres placed off limits by the previous administration may soon be on the market again, too. Over the summer, the BLM put out a call for energy companies and the public to nominate new tracts of land in the NPR for development.

The National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska’s North Slope. Image: Bureau of Land Management

“I think we wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these tracts got bought up,” Leah Donahey, Senior Campaign Director at Alaska Wilderness League, told Earther, referring to the 900 land parcels slated to go on sale in December. “But our bigger concern is if companies really do push for new areas to be opened.”

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“The Integrated Activity Plan is only a few years old, and it was the first comprehensive management plan for the western Arctic,” she continued. “It included public input from communities on the North Slope and around the country. We are definitely concerned about the direction this administration has been going to prioritize energy over all other uses on this land.”

The communities Donahey refers to include the Inupiat people of the North Slope, who rely on these lands for subsistence hunting. The Inupiat have diverse and complex views when it comes to oil and gas development on their lands, with some vehemently opposed to drilling over environmental concerns, and others welcoming the economic benefits it could bring.

When I recently met with George Edwardson, President of the Iñupiat Community of the North Slope, he vowed to keep the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents Iñupiat business interests, from drilling in Alaska’s Arctic ocean. “If I can find a way for it to be stopped, it will be stopped,” he said.

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North Slope Borough Mayor Harry K. Brower Jr. struck a different note in response to the Trump administration’s announcement about the National Petroleum Reserve yesterday.

“The Secretary’s announcement demonstrates his commitment to maximize the tracts offered for sale in NPR-A lease sales while striking a balance between promoting development and protecting subsistence and surface resources,” Brower said.