ANCHORAGE, Alaska—The U.S. Interior Department is determined to sell oil leases for the first time this year in the ecologically sensitive but presumably petroleum-rich coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a Trump administration official said on Thursday.

“That lease sale will happen in 2019,” Joe Balash, the assistant Interior secretary for lands and minerals management, told an oil industry conference in Anchorage.

The decision marks a likely turning point in a decades-long battle between environmental groups and fossil energy companies over the Beaufort Sea coast of the wildlife refuge, home to caribou, polar bear and other arctic wildlife east of Alaska's North Slope oil fields.

The refuge had been off-limits to oil and gas drilling until the end of 2017, when Congress passed a tax overhaul that included a mandate for oil leasing there.
The tax bill requires the Interior Department to hold a lease sale within four years, offering at least 400,000 acres to development within the coastal plain of ANWR, America's largest wildlife sanctuary.

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management issued a draft environmental impact statement last year, and will follow up with a final report this summer, likely by August, Balash said. A record of decision and notice of lease sale will follow, he said.

Environmentalists have criticized the swiftness of the environmental review. One environmental leader predicted legal challenges.

“If they really stick with that timeline, then they’re likely going to be violating several environmental laws,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “This is being rushed faster than any area we’ve ever seen in the American Arctic and almost any area in the United States. It’s about meeting a political clock.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another branch of the Interior Department, criticized the draft environmental review in April, saying the study failed to adequately consider the possibility of oil spills, climate change and the welfare of polar bears that inhabit the area.