There had been little interest in the leases, at least publicly, from major oil companies, given the high cost of producing oil in the Arctic, the growing desire to reduce fossil fuel use, and the reputational risks of drilling in such a pristine area. After pressure from environmental organizations and Native groups, major banks had pledged not to finance any drilling efforts in the refuge.
The apparent lack of interest was borne out in the sale. Only two small companies made bids to acquire 10-year rights to explore and drill for oil on two tracts totaling about 75,000 acres.
A state-owned economic development corporation in Alaska, offering the minimum of $25 an acre, was the sole bidder on the other tracts, totaling about half a million acres. That raised legal issues, including whether the state had standing to purchase leases, that have not been resolved.
Ms. Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, one of the groups that had sued the Trump administration, said the leasing program and resulting sale were the result of a “flawed and legally deficient process.”
The move comes as the Biden administration weathers criticism for recent decisions to either support or fail to block major oil and gas drilling projects.
Two weeks ago, Ms. Haaland called Ms. Murkowski and the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation to inform them she would approve of a multibillion dollar ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve. The project, which Ms. Haaland opposed when she served in Congress, is expected to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for 30 years, locking in decades of new fossil fuel development.
Also last month, Mr. Biden opposed in court shutting down the bitterly-contested Dakota Access pipeline, which is carrying about 550,000 barrels of oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. It also could have decided to halt the pipeline while the Army Corps of Engineers conducts a new court-ordered environmental review, but it opted not to intervene.
And in Wyoming, the Biden administration defended 440 oil and gas leases issued by the Trump administration on federal land that is also the critical habitat of the sage grouse, mule deer and pronghorn.