WASHINGTON – The Biden Suspends Oil Leases and Gas in Alaska’s Arctic National Animals Refuge on Tuesday, cancelling a Trump administration drilling programme and reigniting a political battle over a remote territory home to polar bears and other wildlife, as well as a large oil resource.
The directive by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland comes after President Joe Biden ordered a temporary ban on oil and gas leasing activity on his first day in office. Biden’s executive order from January 20 stated that a fresh environmental evaluation was required to resolve potential legal weaknesses in a drilling programme allowed by the Trump administration under a 2017 statute passed by Congress.
Interior claimed it “discovered deficiencies in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases, including the absence of examination of a reasonable range of alternatives” needed by the National Environmental Policy Act, foundational environmental legislation, after performing a necessary assessment.
Polar bears, caribou, snowy owls, and other species, as well as migrating birds from six continents, call the 19.6 million-acre refuge home. Republicans and the oil industry have been attempting for years to drill in the oil-rich refuge, which is sacred to the Indigenous Gwich’in. Democrats, environmentalists, and certain Alaska Native communities have all attempted to stop it.
On Jan. 6, two weeks before Biden entered office, the US Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department department, staged a lease sale for the refuge’s coastal plain. The government signed contracts for nine sites totalling approximately 685 square miles eight days later (1,770 square kilometres). However, the leases were not made public until January 19, outgoing President Donald Trump’s last full day in office.
Biden has spoken out against drilling in the area, and environmentalists have pushed for permanent restrictions, something Biden advocated for during his presidential campaign.
The suspension of the leases comes after administration officials upset environmental organisations last week when they defended a Trump administration decision to permit a large oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. Critics argue that the decision contradicts Biden’s vows to fight climate change.
In a court filing, the Justice Department said that opponents of the Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska were attempting to halt construction by “cherry-picking” federal agency data to establish environmental review law breaches. The petition justifies the studies that led to the approval of project plans last October.
“Suspending these leases is a positive move, and we applaud the Biden administration for committing to a fresh programme analysis that prioritises strong research and proper tribe participation,” she added.
More action is needed, according to Miller, who is pushing for the leases to be permanently cancelled and the 2017 law mandating drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain to be repealed.
During Trump’s first year in office, congressional Republicans passed a large tax cut that included the drilling mandate. Republicans claim it might produce $1 billion over ten years, a figure Democrats dismiss as ridiculously exaggerated.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, a longstanding opponent of drilling in the refuge, charged that the Trump administration was attempting to “shortcut environmental regulations.”
“The initiative came apart when federal scientists started drilling in the Arctic Refuge couldn’t be done properly, and oil firms didn’t want to drill there,” Cantwell said.
“Now it’s up to Congress to ensure that this priceless, million-year-old ecosystem is permanently protected and that new economic prospects based on protecting America’s pristine public lands for outdoor recreation are realised,” she added.
Tribal officials are encouraged by the Biden administration’s “commitment to preserving holy areas and the Gwich’in way of life,” according to Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Nation Steering Committee.
“For hearing our voices and standing up for our human rights and identity,” she praised Biden and Haaland.
Alaska Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, as well as Rep. Don Young and Governor Mike Dunleavy, issued a joint statement criticising the Interior Department’s move. They’re all Republicans.
The leases sold in January, according to Dunleavy, “are legal and cannot be taken away by the federal government.”
Suspending the Arctic licences “goes against the law, facts, science, and the desires of the Native communities on the North Slope,” according to Sullivan, who applauded Biden last week for supporting the Willow oil project. It’s nothing more than a blatantly political effort on the part of the Biden administration to appease its radical environmental supporters.”
The order, according to Murkowski, was “anticipated but ridiculous nonetheless.”
The secretarial order, according to Murkowski, “is in direct opposition with the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” which “clearly specifies that the goal of the (designated) area of ANWR is oil and gas production.”
“This move serves no purpose other than to stymie Alaska’s economy and jeopardise our energy security,” Murkowski stated.