Why is Trump still pushing to drill in Alaska's Arctic refuge?

The fight over oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska has been going on since 1980, when part of the refuge, 1.5 million acres along the Arctic coast, was marked for potential development. It’s now the Forty Years’ War.

Like other long wars, there have been moments of intense conflict — between Republicans (largely) who support drilling and Democrats (largely) who support protecting the refuge — and much longer periods of slow, simmering tension.

I’ve been covering the issue for the last few years, and in that time I’ve seen the Trump administration get so close to opening the refuge you can practically smell the crude oil coming from northeast Alaska. It has been, quite simply, stunning.

But even the administration’s efforts have unfolded slowly. It’s been three years since the Republican-led Congress passed the Tax Act of 2017, which gave the administration the authority to sell oil and gas leases in the refuge. So it was even more stunning this week, now that President Trump’s time in office is ending, to see what amounted to a mad scramble to get those sales done.

Emphasis, perhaps, on “mad.” As I wrote on Monday, the administration is moving swiftly, as it faces a drop-dead date of Jan. 20 (noon Eastern, even more precisely) when Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be sworn in as the 46th president.

If all goes smoothly for the White House, a lease auction might be held on Jan. 18. You don’t have to be an expert on the machinery of government to realize that that’s cutting it awfully close.

And it may all be moot, as my colleague John Schwartz and I wrote on Tuesday. Given the late auction date, there will be ample opportunity for the incoming administration to reject the leases. And if that doesn’t work, there are lawsuits, most by environmental groups, working their way through the courts that stand a good chance of upending the leasing effort. (It’s possible that the Trump administration would really cut corners and approve the leases immediately after the sale, but that would lead to even more legal troubles.)

It all makes one wonder what the administration is doing, what the endgame is. In reporting for the two articles I didn’t talk to anyone who had much of a clue. And while the administration is moving fast, it isn’t talking.

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