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US BLM delays ANWR lease hearings, comment deadline remains in place

Anchorage, Alaska — The US Bureau of Land Management postponed public hearings on its draft Environmental Impact Statement for oil and natural gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge due to the federal government shutdown, the agency said in a statement.

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Public hearings in communities near a proposed federal action are a routine procedural matter and it is unclear what effect, if any, the delays could have on the BLM's regulatory steps to prepare for leasing.

The 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in the northernmost part of the refuge is considered to have high potential for major new oil and gas discoveries, but little exploration has been carried out and the area was off-limits to explorers until Congress approved its opening in federal tax legislation last year.

The bulk of the refuge is classified as wilderness and is not available for leasing. The area is east of the major producing oil fields on the North Slope.

In its statement, BLM said it will stick with a February 11 deadline for comments on the draft EIS, but if the shutdown continues, this could create a situation where comments must be made before public hearings are held, said Lois Epstein, an Arctic specialist with The Wilderness Society.

In EIS public hearings, agencies typically provide explanations and listen to public views on a proposed action, in this case leasing on ANWR's coastal plain.

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Due to the shutdown, Interior's announcement of the hearing postponement had very limited circulation and was not received by many Alaska reporters. The shutdown has caused potential disruption to what was already a tight schedule for BLM to get the Environmental Impact Statement cleared in 2019, its goal. The hope was for the first of two planned ANWR lease sales to be held in 2019, but that may now be problematic.

Hearings will eventually be held in Anchorage and Washington, as well as villages in northern Alaska including Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik, Fort Yukon, Venetie, and Utqiavik (formerly Barrow) at times and locations to be announced.

-- Tim Bradner, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh, newsdesk@spglobal.com