A giant wildlife refuge in Alaska home to caribou and polar bears will soon have something new on the landscape: oil and gas drills. The Department of the Interior on Monday approved a program to dole out drilling leases for a 1.6-million-acre coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reports the AP. The first leases should be handed out around the end of the year, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tells the Wall Street Journal. He and advocates such as Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy say the step is long overdue and that any drilling will be done without harming wildlife. But environmentalists promise to challenge the move in court. "The Trump administration's so-called review process for their shameless sell-off of the Arctic Refuge has been a sham from the start," says Lena Moffitt of the Sierra Club. "We'll see them in court."
The leases are the culmination of a long fight to open up land for drilling in the ANWR, reports the Washington Post. "It marks a major step toward reviving fossil fuel development in an area that has been untouched for three decades," writes Juliet Eilperin. Congress paved the way for this development in 2017, when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. "Congress gave us a very clear directive here," says Bernhardt. "I have a remarkable degree of confidence that this can be done in a way that is responsible, sustainable, and environmentally benign." The Gwich'in, an Alaskan Indigenous group that relies on caribou in the refuge, disagrees and also plans to sue. The Journal notes that the ANWR is roughly the size of South Carolina, and Congress gave the region federal protection in the 1980s. (Read more Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stories.)