The United States on Monday invited oil companies to choose arctic drilling prospects as President Donald Trump races to enact a controversial Alaska leasing plan in his final days in office.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said it will on Tuesday officially open a 30-day period to accept nominations and comment on some 1.6 million acres (650,000 hectares) in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), pushing the plan a step further in the period before the Trump administration departs in January.
But US environmentalists, who have opposed drilling in ANWR for decades and garnered support from President-elect Joe Biden, vowed to fight the effort.
Leasing tracts normally takes months in between the period when a property is first publicized and a contract is finalized, posing challenges to Trump's timetable.
"Nobody should ever underestimate the Trump administration's willingness to ignore the law in favor of its agenda, but I don't see how they could sign leases before they are ushered out," Niel Lawrence, Alaska Director at the National Resources Defense Council told AFP, adding that who environmentalists "are girding for battle."
The move aims to open up to development a target area long sought by petroleum interests and defended by environmentalists. Some major banks have said they won't finance projects in the refuge.
Biden, who is scheduled to take office on January 20, 2021 after defeating Trump in this month's presidential election, said during the campaign that permanently protecting ANWR stood among his "day one" priorities.
"The United States must have a bold plan to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050 here at home," his campaign website reads. "On day one, Biden will sign a series of executive orders that put us on this track."
Tuesday's announcement, published in in the Federal Register which documents new laws and rules, creates the official comment period and will be followed by a subsequent public notice announcing the lease sale date "published at least 30 days prior to the sale date," BLM said.
"Receiving input from industry on which tracts to make available for leasing is vital in conducting a successful lease sale," said BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett.
Environmentalists have long fought the plan and filed a lawsuit in US court in August contesting the proposal on the basis that it would irreparably harm a place of pristine wildlife that is home to migrating caribou and polar bears.
The BLM statement made no mention of Biden or of the change in administrations. Trump is the first US president in modern times not to concede after electoral defeat while he embarks on a series of longshot lawsuits to overturn the election.
"This is another example of the Trump administration on the way out the door refusing to accept reality," said Lawrence, who hopes oil companies won't participate even if the Trump administration moves ahead with the sale.
Oil industry backers note that 2017 tax reform legislation authorized drilling in the refuge.
"Congress has already acted to open ANWR for safe development, and we welcome any progress in moving forward," said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.
That group is among the Washington organizations that have recognized Biden's win, congratulating the president-elect on November 7 along with running mate Kamala Harris, and pledging to work with the new administration to "support America's economic recovery."