June 20, 2021

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Biden administration puts Arctic refuge leases on ice as it asks for new environmental reviews – Alaska Public Media News

4 min read
a herd of caribouo eat grass in some rolling hills
The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on July 3, 2019. (Danielle Brigida via Creative Commons)

The Biden administration Tuesday took its first steps toward reversing the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to oil drilling, by suspending leases issued in the final days of the Trump administration.

Biden, on the campaign trail, vowed to adopt permanent protections for the refuge. And then, on his first day in office, he ordered a “temporary moratorium” on oil and gas leasing in the northernmost slice of the refuge, called the coastal plain.

His Interior Department now says it will conduct a new environmental review of the Trump administration’s oil and gas leasing program for the coastal plain, while addressing what it called “legal deficiencies.”

RELATED: Biden immediately slams the brakes on oil drilling in Arctic refuge

All activities related to the program — including the nine oil leases approved under Trump — are suspended until the review is complete, the Interior said in a written statement. The department will then decide whether the leases should be “reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures,” it said. 

Mixed reaction

Alaska’s all-Republican Congressional delegation and governor blasted the Interior’s decision on Tuesday, while environmental groups applauded it.

“The Biden administration’s actions are not unexpected but are outrageous nonetheless,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Murkowski was a key player in opening the refuge’s coastal plain to oil development in 2017, after 40 years of debate.

The coastal plain is home to migrating caribou, polar bears, birds and other wildlife. It also potentially sits atop billions of barrels of oil, according to federal estimates.

Some Indigenous Iñupiat leaders in the village of Kaktovik, which sits within the coastal plain, support oil exploration, while the Gwich’in, who live to the south and subsist on caribou, are opposed.

“Hopefully today’s news won’t go as far as outside-of-Alaska NGO green groups have requested in an ongoing lawsuit, which aims to void the leases that were awarded earlier this year and lock down ANWR forever,” North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower said in a statement.

But Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, is hoping Biden does just that: Cancels the existing oil leases and bans drilling in the coastal plain.

“This is good news,” she said in a phone interview from Fairbanks. “We were expecting more. But, you know, we’ll take what we got. And we do understand that they have to follow their laws, something that the former administration refused to do.”

A map of Alaska, outlining the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain is shown in orange. The area covers about 1.6 million area, roughly the size of Delaware, and makes up about 8% of the refuge. (USGS map)

Lease sale goes bust

The existing oil leases stem from the first-ever lease sale in the refuge, held on Jan. 6.

It was a controversial sale, snarled in lawsuits and opposition. 

Critics said it was rushed, sloppy and a threat to animals and the environment. But supporters said drilling in the refuge is good for jobs and the country’s energy independence.

The sale ended up drawing little interest: No major oil companies bid on the leases. Instead, two smaller ones each picked up a single lease, and the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority picked up seven — it’s first time ever holding federal oil leases.

The leases last for 10 years, and work wasn’t expected to begin on them anytime soon.

RELATED: Arctic refuge lease sale goes bust, as major oil companies skip out

Alan Weitzner, the state authority’s executive director, underscored that the leases are contracts.

The suspension frustrated him. By Tuesday afternoon, he said, he had not heard from the Interior directly, and instead learned of its decision in news reports and in its written statement released to the public.

“Very disappointed, surprised that they’re identifying what currently, to us, are unknown deficiencies within the program itself,” he said.

Weitzner said he’ll wait until the Interior finishes its review to figure out next steps.

Meanwhile, Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy described the lease suspension as an “assault on Alaska’s economy” and pledged to use “every means necessary to undo this egregious federal overreach.”

Dunleavy and Alaska’s congressional delegation argue that the suspension goes against the federal law that opened the coastal plain to drilling and ordered the Interior to hold two lease sales there.

‘Whiplash’

The Biden administration’s suspension comes on the heels of its decision to defend ConocoPhillips’ major oil drilling development called Willow, to the west of the refuge in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. That project got the go-ahead under the Trump administration.

RELATED: Biden administration throws support behind massive Willow oil project in NPR-A

Alaskans are likely suffering “whiplash,” said a statement Tuesday from Anchorage Sen. Josh Revak, chairman of the state Senate Resources Committee. Revak criticized Biden’s move to pause oil leasing in the refuge.

“Alaska is known internationally as a shining example of environmentally responsible resource development, and yet this administration is stifling economic development and jobs here at home while giving a green light to Russian natural gas projects halfway across the globe,” he said.

Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, was among those disappointed by the Willow news last week, and applauding the Biden administration on Tuesday, while also asking that it do more.

“Until the leases are canceled, they will remain a threat to one of the wildest places left in America,” Miller said in a statement. “Now we look to the administration and Congress to prioritize legislatively repealing the oil leasing mandate and restore protections to the Arctic Refuge coastal plain.”

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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