The 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is an important, well, refuge for young caribou and migrating birds. And—citing an Aug. 11 memo from the Interior Department—the Washington Post reports the Trump administration is taking steps to open it to drilling for the first time in more than three decades. The memo from US Fish and Wildlife Service acting director James Kurth instructs a regional director to remove the time constraints from a rule that allowed exploratory seismic drilling between 1984 and 1986. While the ultimate decision to allow oil drilling in ANWR resides with Congress, seismic studies would be a necessary first step. “When finalized, the new regulation will allow for applicants to [submit] requests for approval of new exploration plans,” Kurth says in the memo.
Any move to conduct seismic drilling in ANWR is likely to be challenged in court by environmentalists, who say such activity would disturb polar bears—already a threatened species—in their dens. Interior Department officials under President Trump say they are "required by law" to allow for seismic studies in ANWR. It's the exact opposite conclusion of the one reached by the Clinton and Obama administrations, which found it was illegal for the department to allow them. It's unclear how much interest companies would have in paying for seismic drilling in ANWR, given the low price of oil, but the Interior Department is currently staffed with longtime backers of drilling. Republicans have been trying to get at the oil under ANWR for years but have been blocked by Democrats in the Senate and, at one point, a presidential veto. (Read more Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stories.)