Trump administration responds to criticism about continued work on Arctic drilling during shutdown

The Canning River, which forms the northwestern border of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

The Interior Department has responded to questions from a Democratic Congressman about its continued work to advance oil development in Alaska during the partial government shutdown.

Despite the shutdown, Interior has held public meetings in Alaska communities on potentially expanding oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. And last week, Alaska’s Energy Desk reported that an Interior employee was continuing to email community leaders in Alaska to arrange meetings about oil lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, two weeks into the shutdown.

On Monday, Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona wrote a letter to Interior demanding details on how the agency is paying for its continued work, saying it raises legal questions. Grijalva, now chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is fiercely opposed to oil development in the Refuge.

“The work for gas and oil continues, despite the shutdown, despite the fact that people are not being paid, despite that our parks are suffering from looting, vandalism and unsanitary conditions,” Grijalva said in an interview.

Interior officials declined to be interviewed. But in its response letter, the agency said after consulting with its solicitor’s office, Interior determined it could legally fund the work using money from the previous fiscal year.

The agency added, “The planning process for both of these efforts are critical to the state of Alaska and the nation. The BLM will continue to ensure opportunities for public engagement are provided in order to allow local community members, governments, and the public at large to weigh in on these important matters.”

Grijalva’s colleagues in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee say they support Interior’s actions. That committee is chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who championed the legislation that opened a part of ANWR for oil development in 2017.

“One of Interior’s essential missions is producing energy for the good of the country,” a spokeswoman for the committee said in a statement. “What they’re doing to advance development in the NPR-A and 1002 Area is fully legal, a top priority, and we strongly support it.”

The BLM on Wednesday announced it is postponing public meetings related to oil leasing in ANWR, although the agency had not yet made the meeting dates public. The agency said the deadline for public comment — February 11 — remains the same.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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