The report released by the Bureau of Land Management studied the environmental impact of opening between two-thirds and all of 1.65 million acres (667,731 hectares) of coastal plain within the remote refuge for oil and gas leasing.
Release of Thursday's legally required environmental impact statement marks one of the last major actions in office by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, an ardent supporter of the oil and gas industry who leaves office Jan. 2 amid ethics investigations.
In a statement, Zinke called the step toward opening Alaska's North Slope for oil and gas development a move toward an "energy-dominant America." A strong leasing program within the wilderness area "helps us realize our tremendous energy potential without harming our environment or way of life," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in another statement.
The administration's environmental review acknowledged that opening the coastal plains within the nation's largest wildlife refuge would impact Alaska Native hunters, as well as caribou herds and other arctic animals and migratory birds that depend upon the refuge.
The report concluded, however, that the lease sales could be carried out "while balancing biological and ecological concerns." President Donald Trump had insisted Congress include a provision mandating the lease sales within the wildlife refuge in recent tax legislation. Trump said a friend had told him that every Republican president since Ronald Reagan had tried and failed to open the wildlife refuge for oil and gas.
President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995. Democrats defeated a similar Republican proposal a decade later. Environmental groups accuse the administration of hurrying the process through, barring adequate review of the risks of opening one of the United States' wildest remaining areas to oil and gas prospecting and drilling.
Official publication of Thursday's environmental impact statement opens a period of public review, which ends in February. "The process laid out in the plan is rushed and reckless, defying good science and meaningful dialogue with stakeholders," Jamie Williams, head of the nonprofit Wilderness Society, said in a statement.
"Some places should remain untouched for future generations," Williams said. "This is a land grab, pure and simple, and the individuals responsible care little about impacts to wildlife or the damage they would be inflicting on Alaska Native people," executive director Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League said.
The report examines wildlife and habitat at risk from opening the wilderness area. For example, a declining local population of 900 polar bears uses the targeted area for raising cubs and hunting. The pounding of seismic testing for underground oil and gas reserves could drive those bears to abandon dens and the cubs in them, the report acknowledges.
Bears at large would be at increased risk from oilfield spills and chemicals, traffic, and run-ins with oil and gas and construction crews, the report warns. "The potential for injury or mortality could be high when developing new oil and gas projects in polar bear habitat," the report said.
The risks are known and could be reduced, however, it concludes. The Trump administration and congressional Republicans said the oil and gas leases would help pay for the tax cuts approved by Congress and signed by Trump in December.
Environmental groups and other critics call hopes of any big payoff unfounded, citing falling oil prices globally and the high costs of operating in the Arctic's difficult terrain. The administration plan calls for at least two major lease sales over the next decade of at least 625 square miles (1,618.75 square kilometers) each in the refuge's coastal plain.
The legislation limits surface development to 3 square miles (7.77 square kilometers). However, the Bureau of Land Management in its environmental review said it interpreted that limit as applying only "at any given time," suggesting oil and gas drilling sites could use more than 2,000 acres (809.37 hectares) over time.