Arctic refuge lease sale goes bust, as major oil companies skip out

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

One of the Trump administration’s biggest energy initiatives suffered a stunning setback Wednesday, as a decades-long push to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ended with a lease sale that attracted just three bidders — one of which was the state of Alaska itself.

Alaska’s state-owned economic development corporation was the only bidder on nine of the tracts offered for lease in the northernmost swath of the refuge, known as the coastal plain. Two small companies also each picked up a single parcel.

Half of the offered leases drew no bids at all.

“They held the lease in ANWR — that is history-making. That will be recorded in the history books and people will talk about it,” said Larry Persily, a longtime observer of the oil and gas industry in Alaska. “But no one showed up.”

RELATED: Here’s what you need to know about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s first-ever oil lease sale

The sale generated a tiny fraction of the revenue it was projected to raise.

It was a striking moment in a 40-year fight over drilling in the coastal plain, an area that’s home to migrating caribou, polar bears, birds and other wildlife. It also potentially sits atop billions of barrels of oil, according to federal estimates.

But amid a global recession, low oil prices and an aggressive pressure campaign against leasing by drilling opponents, oil analysts have for months been predicting little interest in the sale, and their forecasts were confirmed Wednesday. 

Read all of the bids received here.

Persily took the sale as evidence that while drilling in the refuge remains a long-held dream of some politicians, it is no longer treasured by oil companies. 

“It was, in the oil industry terms, a dry hole. A bust,” he said. “They had the lease sale, the administration can feel good about it, but no one’s going to see any oil coming out of ANWR.” 

A white woman in a blue shirt speaks at a podium in fronnt of an american and Alaskan flag
Kate MacGregor, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Interior, announces bids at the BLM’s lease sale of tracts within the Arctic Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 6, 2021 (Screenshot from BLM)

Even Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, acknowledged that the sale results weren’t as “robust” as expected. But she said the industry still supports future access to the coastal plain.

“Today’s sale reflects the brutal economic realities the oil and gas industry continues to face after the unprecedented events of 2020, coupled with ongoing regulatory uncertainty,” she said in a statement.

RELATEDThe Trump administration is moving to sell leases in ANWR, but will anyone show up for a sale?

The lease sale raised a total of $14.4 million in bids, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that held the sale. Nearly all of that came from Alaska’s state-owned economic development corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

Half of the cash will go to the federal government, and half will go back to the state of Alaska.

The amount raised is nowhere near what was projected when a Republican-led Congress officially opened the coastal plain to drilling in 2017 as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. 

The bill ordered two lease sales, the first by the end of this year, with the revenue aimed at offsetting massive tax cuts. 

Despite the low interest, Alaska’s Congressional delegation applauded the sale on Wednesday, and so did officials with the Bureau of Land Management, describing it as historic and a success.

Opponents blasted the sale.

a group of people standing with light-boards that spell out "protect the arctic"
Defend the Sacred AK, a group opposed to oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, stands in front of the Anchorage BLM office on Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the first-ever oil lease sale for the Refuge. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“I laughed out loud. It was a joke. A joke to the American people,” said Desirée Sorenson-Groves, director of the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign.

She said it feels like the government is basically giving away the rights to land that’s important to Indigenous people, and critical habitat for wildlife. The fight is not over, she said.

“I’ll tell you, I have a message to those who bid today, there were only three,” she said. “But here’s the message: ‘You will never ever drill in the Arctic Refuge. We’ll stop you.’”

The land that received no bids on Wednesday will not be leased in this sale.

RELATED: Federal judge denies requests to block Arctic refuge oil leasing

Of the two small companies that did win leases, one is Regenerate Alaska, a subsidiary of Australia-based 88 Energy. The other is Knik Arm Services, a small Alaska company managed by an investor named Mark Graber.

The state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which dominated the sale, has never held federal oil leases before. 

RELATED: Alaska’s state development corporation approved to spend up to $20M on ANWR oil leases

But Alaska politicians, including former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, recently pushed the corporation to bid, citing the lack of industry interest. Murkowski, in an interview Wednesday, said he expects the corporation to eventually partner with companies to do the actual drilling. 

“We’ll see how good an investment it is when we see what the interest is from some companies to negotiate,” he said.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority declined a phone interview request on Wednesday.

A map of northern Alaska is separated into tracts showing the different oil leases up for bid.
A map from the Bureau of Land Management shows the results of the first-ever oil lease sale in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Half of the tracts received no bids at all. (BLM Screenshot)

The oil leases auctioned off in the refuge will last 10 years, and can be renewed.

But they are not yet finalized.

That process, which includes an anti-trust review by the U.S. Department of Justice, typically takes about two months. The Trump administration is expected to rush to issue the leases formally before the president leaves office in two weeks.

Even if it succeeds, additional oil leasing and drilling in the refuge will face headwinds, said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., a longtime drilling opponent.

He said his next step will be pushing for “permanent protection” for the Arctic refuge. He’s likely to have support from a Biden administration. The president-elect and his appointee to lead the Interior Department have both said they oppose drilling there.

Huffman said he‘s open to a compromise with drilling boosters — from the state of Alaska to Indigenous Iñupiaq leaders in Kaktovik, the only community inside the refuge’s boundaries — that would provide them with alternative paths toward economic development.

“We’re not hostile to taking care of the interests here, and helping put folks on a path of economic development that makes sense and that’s sustainable,” Huffman said. 

“But whether it’s the climate crisis or the market factors or the extreme logistic and environmental impropriety of drilling in this place, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s just not. And so I think the state of Alaska and the folks in Kaktovik should cut a deal.”

RELATED: The lease sale is set, but how much oil actually is under ANWR’s coastal plain?

Roger Herrera, a retired BP executive and longtime lobbyist for an Alaska group that pushed Congress to open the refuge, said he was “hugely disappointed” in the results of the lease sale.

“Alaska is a natural resource state. You take away its natural resources and it has basically nothing,” he said in a phone interview. “Alaska’s motto of ‘North to the Future,’ should be re-examined, because I don’t think it has much meaning now.”

a person with their fist in the air holds a sign that says "sacred lands not for sale; stop arctic oil extraction"
Nauri Toler stands outside the Anchorage BLM office during a protest Wednesday. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Some opponents were still deeply upset to see the lease sale go forward, even without much industry interest. The act of selling off leases will make it more difficult to stop development from happening, said Nauri Toler, an Iñupiaq woman from Nuiqsut and Utqiagvik who works as the Arctic Slope environmental organizer for an organization called Native Movement.

“It’s hard to go back after the lease sales — it’s a whole different game after that happens,” she said during a protest Wednesday morning outside the Bureau of Land Management’s downtown Anchorage office. “It’s pretty heart-wrenching.”

Alaska Public Media’s Jeff Chen contributed to this story.

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