In a bold and contentious move that has stirred strong reactions from Republicans, the Biden administration announced the cancellation of the remaining seven oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday. This action effectively reversed the sales that were authorized during the final days of the Trump administration. In addition to this, the administration proposed more robust safeguards against development across extensive areas of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Biden canceling oil and gas leases
This decision comes on the heels of earlier disappointments for environmental advocacy groups, as the Biden administration had approved the Willow oil project within the petroleum reserve, a large-scale endeavor by ConocoPhillips Alaska, capable of producing up to 180,000 barrels of oil daily on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope. The proposed protections encompass over 20,000 square miles of land in the western Arctic.
While some critics argue that the approval of the Willow project contradicted President Biden’s climate change commitments, they have praised Wednesday’s announcement as a step in the right direction, though they believe more should be done. Legal challenges to the approval of the Willow project are still pending.
In response to these developments, President Biden emphasized the importance of protecting Alaska’s natural wonders and culturally significant areas, especially in the face of the rapidly warming Arctic due to the climate crisis. He stated that these actions are aligned with the urgency of addressing climate change and aim to safeguard the environment for future generations.
Republican governor criticized decision
Alaska’s Republican governor strongly criticized President Biden’s actions and threatened legal action. Moreover, at least one Democratic lawmaker expressed concerns that this decision could negatively impact Indigenous communities in an isolated region where oil development plays a pivotal role in the economy.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who faced criticism for her involvement in approving the Willow project, asserted that no one would be permitted to drill for oil in this ecologically sensitive landscape. However, a 2017 law mandates another lease sale by late 2024, and administration officials have indicated their intention to comply with this legal requirement.
Additionally, the Biden administration unveiled proposed regulations intended to provide enhanced protections against new leasing and development in portions of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska designated as special areas due to their wildlife, subsistence, scenic, or other values. These proposals will undergo a public comment process, and it is worth noting that the Willow project, while within the reserve, is not expected to be affected by these rules.
ANWR sits along northeastern Alaska
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, spanning 1.5 million acres along the Beaufort Sea in northeastern Alaska, holds sacred significance for the Indigenous Gwich’in community. It serves as a crucial migratory route and birthing place for caribou, while also offering habitat to diverse wildlife, including polar bears and wolves.
Alaska’s political leaders, including some Democrats, have long advocated for oil and gas drilling in the refuge due to its economic impact on Indigenous communities with limited employment opportunities. Many of these voices had pressed for the approval of the Willow project for the same reasons.
In response to the lease cancellations, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola expressed frustration, particularly on behalf of the impacted Inupiat North Slope communities, and emphasized the need to advocate for Alaska’s natural resource exploration and development.
In 2017, Alaska’s congressional delegation successfully pushed for language in a federal tax law that mandated two lease sales in the region by late 2024. Those opposing drilling are now urging Congress to repeal this leasing provision from the 2017 law and permanently protect the coastal plain from drilling activities.
Sen. Dan Sullivan called it a “War on Alaska”
Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, hailed these announcements as immensely important for Arctic conservation, emphasizing the positive impact on climate and renewed hope for the lasting protection of one of America’s last great wild landscapes.
However, Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan viewed President Biden’s actions as another attack on Alaska in what he termed a “war on Alaska.”
Two leases issued as part of the initial 2021 sale for the refuge had already been relinquished by the small companies holding them due to legal disputes and uncertainties surrounding the drilling program. President Biden had previously imposed a temporary moratorium on leasing-related activities through an executive order and called for a review of the program by the Interior secretary. A draft environmental review was released in conjunction with Wednesday’s announcement.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state corporation that secured seven leases in the 2021 sale, had sued over the moratorium. However, a federal judge recently ruled that the Interior’s delay in conducting a new review was not unreasonable. Major oil companies had refrained from participating in the sale following the decisions of prominent banks to not finance Arctic oil and gas projects.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, expressed gratitude for the lease cancellations while cautioning that their sacred land may only be temporarily protected from oil and gas development. She called on the administration and congressional leaders to repeal the oil and gas program and ensure the permanent protection of the Arctic Refuge.
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