Hawaii & Alaska
Three polar bears are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Image Library. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska |

AK - After Decades-Long Push, It's Not Clear Who Will Bid In Arctic Refuge Oil Lease Sale

Just two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the Trump administration is trying to lock-in oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a hastily scheduled and controversial lease sale.

The event, January 6, marks a major moment in a 40-year fight over whether to developthe northernmost slice of the refuge's coastal plain, home to migrating caribou, birds and polar bears.

Biden, as well as his pick for Interior Secretary — Rep. Deb Haaland — oppose drilling in the refuge. The hand-off of drilling rights to the highest bidders could make it more difficult to reverse course.

But despite the high stakes, uncertainty looms over how much oil is actually trapped under the million acres of tundra up for leasing, and how much industry interest there is to go find it.

'We don't know very much about this area'

The data on what's under the coastal plain is decades old.

"We don't know very much about this area," says David Houseknecht, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Oil seeps and rock formations seem promising, but he says the agency hasn't estimated the coastal plain's oil potential since the late 1990s.

Back then, it relied on seismic testing from a decade prior, technology that's now outdated. It found that anywhere from about 4 to 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil could lie beneath the federal lands. That's a whole lot of oil, but also "a very large range of uncertainty," Houseknecht says. "The seismic data that we have are quite old, low resolution and a sparse grid."

The other challenge, he says: There's no data from actual wells in the refuge.

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