The Department of the Interior on Monday approved an oil and gas leasing program within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife. The move brings the administration one step closer to oil drilling in the region.

The first leases to drill for oil and gas in the refuge could be sold by the end of the year, Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt said as his agency has formally announced its leasing program on Monday.

Bernhardt signed the Record of Decision, which will determine where oil and gas leasing will take place in the refuge's 1.56-million acre coastal plain, the largest wildlife refuge in the country.

Drawing out the terms of a leasing program is one of the final steps in a controversial plan to tap the oil and gas resources in the refuge that has been fought over for decades with opposition from environmental groups as well as members of Alaska's Indigenous communities.

Congress green-lit the program in 2017, and the Interior's Bureau of Land Management in December 2018 concluded that drilling could be done within the coastal plain area without harming wildlife.

North Pole
Polar bears in the Arctic Dirk Notz

Oil Drilling in the Region Could Threaten Wildlife

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups said oil operations in the federally protected lands threatens the pristine landscape, which is the summer breeding ground of more than 200,000 caribou, the winter den of dozens of polar bears, and home to millions of migratory birds that descend upon it every spring.

Environmentalists claim oil development in the region would bring roads, airstrips, heavy machinery, noise and pollution, and would damage the refuge's fragile tundra ecosystem and disrupt age-old migration and denning patterns for caribou, polar bears and other animals.

They claim it would also contribute to the ongoing climate crisis with more oil production in a time when it is not required and the administration should instead be thinking of alternative approaches to fuel.

An Election-Year 'Stunt'

Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Twitter

Environmental groups have pledged to take legal action to prevent the move, calling it an election-year stunt that will be challenged in court.

"The Trump administration's so-called review process for their shameless sell-off of the Arctic Refuge has been a sham from the start. We'll see them in court," said Lena Moffitt of the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.

"Our climate is in crisis, oil prices have cratered, and major banks are pulling out of Arctic financing right and left," said Adam Kolton, executive director at Alaska Wilderness League. "And yet the Trump administration continues its race to liquidate our nation's last great wilderness, putting at risk the indigenous peoples and iconic wildlife that depend on it."

"The Trump administration never stops pushing to drill in the Arctic Refuge — and we will never stop suing them," said Gina McCarthy, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "America has safeguarded the refuge for decades, and we will not allow the administration to strip that protection away now."