Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), one of the largest conservation areas in the country, includes a 1.5 million–acre coastal plain that is home to polar bears, migrating caribou, and hundreds of other animal species. It sits atop what some estimate to be billions of barrels of oil. So it came as no surprise when, despite the objections of the indigenous Gwich’in, environmental advocacy groups, and 72 percent of Americans, the Trump administration rushed forward with a January 6 auction of twenty-two tracts of land on the coastal plain. What is surprising is that the auction fell well short of the government’s $900 million goal, raising instead a paltry $14.4 million.
The auction was the first of two required by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which projected the leases could offset up to $1.8 billion of Trump’s massive giveaway to corporations and the wealthy. Its inclusion in the law was the culmination of a forty-year battle to gain access to drilling on the coastal plain, the only part of the ANWR open to potential development, pending congressional approval. But the plan fell flat: half the tracts received no bids at all, and almost all of those that did were leased at rock-bottom prices to a state-owned development group that hopes to sublease them in the future. Not a single major oil company bid. America’s six largest banks have refused to finance any energy exploration on the coastal plain. Lawsuits contesting the auction have been filed by national and local environmental groups; by Trustees for Alaska, who represent the Gwich’in; and by attorneys general from fifteen states. Plaintiffs argue that the environmental-impact survey conducted to sanction the leasing program “drastically underestimated” the effect of its emissions, and that development on the coastal plain threatens land central to the subsistence and culture of the Gwich’in.