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Interior Dept. Takes Next Step Toward Sale of Drilling Leases in Arctic Refuge

Under federal environmental protection laws, the Bureau of Land Management had to file an environmental impact statement for the lease-sale plan. It filed a draft last December, and after receiving and reviewing about 1.1 million comments and holding hearings in Alaska and Washington, it released the final statement on Thursday.

The draft report had outlined several possibilities for lease sales, largely involving how much of the coastal plain would be opened to development. The final report recommends the broadest approach, allowing drilling rights for most of the acreage to be sold.

At a news conference Thursday, Chad Padgett, Alaska state director of the Bureau of Land Management, said that a decision on how much acreage would be offered for sale was not yet final. But the recommendation, he said, “presents the best balanced approach both to development and environmental concerns such as resource protection.” Mr. Padgett said that it included protections for polar bears, caribou and other wildlife.

Oil industry representatives and members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation hailed the report. Environmental groups and some Congressional Democrats immediately objected to it, saying that among other things it ignored most of the potential impacts, including the harm to wildlife. It also did not take into account the future effects of climate change on the region, they said.

Also on Thursday, the Democrat-controlled House approved legislation that would halt the lease-sale plan. But it is not expected to survive the Senate, where Republicans are in the majority.

A 30-day comment period now starts following the release of the environmental impact statement. Once completed, the Interior Department will issue a “record of decision,” with the lease sales starting after that, most likely in December, the usual month for oil-leasing activity in Alaska. But the eventual outcome remains uncertain, as environmental groups are expected to file court challenges to the plan. And if leases are sold, exploration or production work will require further environmental reviews.

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