Kicking off what is expected to be a long and arduous process, the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Friday launched a comment period and said it plans to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) to support future oil and natural gas leasing within a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

In a notice filed in Friday’s Federal Register, BLM said it has begun a 60-day public comment period over opening part of the coastal plain of ANWR, aka the 1002 Area, to leasing. Public scoping meetings are to be held in Anchorage and Fairbanks, as well as Arctic Village, Kaktovik and Utqiagvik, which is more commonly known as Barrow. Additional meetings may be scheduled if there is enough community interest.

The EIS is the next step in a decades-long saga to open part of the 1002 Area to leasing. A breakthrough came last December, when Republican lawmakers successfully pushed a $1.5 trillion comprehensive tax reform bill through Congress. The bill included a policy rider, submitted by Alaska’s all-GOP contingent, for a leasing program.

Under the tax law provision, BLM must conduct at least two lease sales by December 2024. Each sale must have at least 400,000 acres available for lease. The 1002 Area covers 1.5 million acres, while ANWR covers 19 million acres in total.

“We welcome this scoping announcement and the DOI’s continued work to implement our legislation opening the coastal plain to responsible energy development,” said Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young. “We appreciate the DOI following the law, planning multiple public meetings with Alaskans, and moving forward on this important program to help ensure the energy and economic security of our nation.”

Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, also lauded the move. “Opening the 1002 Area of ANWR to oil leasing is a historic opportunity for Alaska. This is an important priority for my administration, given the potential for significant new revenues from lease sales and production.”

Alaska Oil and Gas Association (AOGA) CEO Kara Moriarty called BLM’s notice “the first step in a very long process…”Alaskans have long supported leasing and responsible development in the coastal plain which was set aside for oil and gas development. We are encouraged that DOI wants to hear from Alaskans across the state about this important issue. AOGA looks forward to participating in this public process.”

Conversely, Democrats and environmental groups blasted the decision. Center for American Progress spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley took aim at DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke and his deputy, David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist whose client list included the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

“The Trump administration’s headlong rush to drill America’s last great wilderness is reckless and wrong,” Lee-Ashley said. “By putting the fate of ANWR in the hands of former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, [Zinke] has made clear that this rushed environmental review process will be nothing more than a kangaroo court. The administration’s shortcuts to sell out the Arctic refuge are legally risky and are sure to add another stain to Zinke’s shameful anti-conservation record.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, led eight Democratic counterparts in expressing concern over what was characterized as “needless haste” in advancing a drilling program in the 1002 Area.

“This rush is especially egregious because it has clearly been stated in the press that the goal of this timeline is to meet the purely political deadline of holding a lease sale within this presidential term,” Grijalva and the Democrats wrote in a letter to Zinke on Thursday. “Playing politics with our nation’s most important and irreplaceable public lands is irresponsible, and this effort is wholly incompatible with your responsibility to move forward in a way that is compatible with protecting the wilderness and wildlife values of the refuge and the needs of the Gwich’in people.”