The Trump administration gave way to oil and gas drilling in a vast wildlife refuge in Alaska
WASHINGTON, Aug 17 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Monday finalized a plan to allow oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, putting it on track to issue decades-long leases in the pristine wilderness area before a potential change in U.S. leadership.
The 19 million acre (7.7 million hectares) refuge is home to wildlife populations including Porcupine caribou and polar bears and has been off-limits to drilling for decades.
But a Republican-passed tax bill in 2017 opened the area to oil and gas leasing, a key pillar of U.S. President Donald Trump's energy agenda to expand fossil fuel production on public lands.
The Interior Department could hold a sale of oil and gas leases in ANWR by the end of the year, Secretary David Bernhardt said on a conference call with reporters.
"I'm not really driven by the political dynamics" of the Nov. 3 presidential election, he said.
Polls show Trump is trailing challenger Joe Biden, a Democrat.
If found, oil production could begin in ANWR in about eight years, Bernhardt said, with activity lasting about 50 years.
Environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers have long fought to block the pristine area from development of oil rigs, pipelines and roads. Green groups said it was particularly unjustified at a time of slumping oil prices.
"It's absolutely bonkers to endanger this beautiful place during a worldwide oil glut," said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Asked about how the low price of oil might affect an ANWR lease sale, Bernhardt said potential investors were not focused on the spot price of energy when considering long-term projects.
Industry interest in ANWR is unclear, and several big U.S. banks have said recently they will not finance oil and gas projects in the Arctic region. ANWR has been tested only once for the potential to extract fossil fuels.
Bernhardt said companies would bid on leases despite a lack of seismic testing that is a precursor to drilling.
Alaska's governor and a congressional delegation applauded the decision, saying it would create jobs and boost the state's economy.
"The vision of Secretary Bernhardt and President Donald J. Trump will lead to the responsible development of Alaska's abundant resources, create new jobs, support economic growth and prosperity, and most importantly, retain well into the future Alaska's critical role in our Nation's energy policy," Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy said in a statement.
(Adds details from conference call with Interior secretary, background, Alaska governor quote)
(Reporting by Nichola Groom, Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Will Dunham and Chris Reese)