(CNN) Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Monday announced plans for an oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, clearing the way for drilling in the remote Alaskan area.
Bernhardt said future leases of the federally-owned land will make the entire 1.5 million acre Coastal Plain area available.
Bernhardt said the announcement "marks a new chapter in American energy independence" and predicted it could "create thousands of new jobs."
Drilling in these controversial areas of the Alaskan arctic has long been controversial and the plans are certain to be met with legal challenges.
Environmental activists have sounded the alarm that drilling the Arctic could harm the environment and exacerbate the climate crisis. Climate change has been a key issue in the upcoming 2020 election, and Joe Biden, who is set to accept the Democratic presidential nomination this week, has called for a ban on new oil and gas permits on public lands.
When asked on the call Monday whether he pressured because of a potential Biden administration being less interested in moving forward, Bernhardt said he was "not really driven by the political dynamics."
"Congress has mandated these lease sales so they have to go forward in some regard," Bernhardt said. "They can't simply unduly delay."
A 2017 law required the department to hold two lease sales in the refuge by 2024. A date for those sales has not yet been set, Bernhardt said on a call with reporters Monday, adding "I do believe that there could be a lease sale by the end of the year."
"It requires an oil and gas development program that delivers energy to the nation and revenue to the Treasury," he said. "The law makes oil and gas development one of the purposes of the refuge, clearly directing me, acting through the Bureau of Land Management, to carry out a competitive exploration and development program for the potentially energy rich coastal plain."
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the plans.
Republican Alaskan lawmakers, Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, praised the decision.
"This is a capstone moment in our decades-long push to allow for the responsible development of a small part of Alaska's 1002 Area," Murkowski said in a statement Monday. "Through this program, we will build on our already-strong record of an increasingly minimal footprint for responsible resource development."
Gina McCarthy, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under former President Barack Obama and current president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the decision an "egregious intrusion into the sacred lands of the Gwich'in and other Indigenous People" and a threat to US wildlife.
Garett Rose, staff attorney for the Alaska Project Nature Program for NRDC, told CNN Monday the organization plans to challenge the decision.
This story has been updated.