The sun setting on the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The largest untapped onshore reserve of oil in North America is believed to lie beneath the refuge’s coastal plain. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — It is the last great stretch of nothingness in the United States, a vast landscape of mosses, sedges and shrubs that is home to migrating caribou and the winter dens of polar bears.
Aside from a Native village at its northern tip, civilization has not dented its 19 million acres, an area the size of South Carolina. There are no roads and no visitors beyond the occasional hunter and backpacker.
But the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a federally protected place of austere beauty that during a recent flyover was painted white by heavy snowfall — is on the cusp of major change.
The biggest untapped onshore trove of oil in North America is believed to lie beneath the refuge’s coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea. For more than a generation, opposition to drilling has left the refuge largely unscathed, but now the Trump administration, working with Republicans in Congress and an influential and wealthy Alaska Native corporation, is clearing the way for oil exploration along the coast.
To that end, the Trump administration is on pace to finish an environmental impact assessment in half the usual time. An even shorter evaluation of the consequences of seismic testing is nearing completion. Within months, trucks weighing up to 90,000 pounds could be conducting the tests across the tundra as they try to pinpoint oil reserves.
While actual oil production would be a decade or more away, the turnaround represents a prized breakthrough in the Trump administration’s campaign to exploit fossil fuels and erase restrictive policies protecting the environment and addressing global warming.
The Interior Department, which has jurisdiction over the Arctic refuge, has been central to the administration’s regulatory rollback in Alaska and beyond, accommodating the wishes of big businesses to strip down rules on how federal lands can be used. The oil and gas industry has been among the biggest beneficiaries as the administration has relaxed or abandoned regulations meant to safeguard air quality, groundwater supplies and wildlife.