The Biden administration has suspended oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, undoing one of former President Donald Trump’s environmental decisions. The administration is also going to investigate the environmental consequences of drilling in the Alaskan area.
The ruling by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland followed President Joe Biden’s temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease activities on his first day in office. Biden’s executive order dated January 20 stated that a fresh environmental evaluation was required to resolve potential legal weaknesses in a drilling program allowed by the Trump administration under a 2017 legislation passed by Congress.
Following a required evaluation, the Interior Secretary stated that it “identified defects in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases, including the lack of analysis of a reasonable range of alternatives,” as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, a fundamental environmental law.
Polar bears, caribou, snowy owls, and other species, including migrating birds from six continents, consider the 19.6 million-acre as home. Republicans and the oil industry have long sought to open up the oil-rich refuge, which the Indigenous Gwich’in hold as sacred, for drilling. Democrats, environmentalists, and several Alaska Native communities have all tried to stymie it.
The Alaska Wilderness League’s acting executive director, Kristen Miller, endorsed the suspension of the Arctic leasing program, which she said was the product of a flawed legal process under Trump.
“Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction, and we commend the Biden administration for committing to a new program analysis that prioritizes sound science and adequate tribal consultation,” she said.
Miller called for more action, including the permanent cancellation of the leases and the repeal of the 2017 legislation mandating drilling on the refuge’s coastal plain.
The drilling mandate was part of a major tax cut granted by Congress during Trump’s first year in office. Republicans claim it might produce $1 billion over ten years, a figure Democrats deem ridiculously exaggerated.
According to the Sierra Club, six major U.S. banks — Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America — have all stated that they will not fund drilling in ANWR.
Drilling in the region was previously labeled “dangerous, risky, and unpopular” by the Gwich’in tribe. 17 Indigenous and conservation organizations issued a joint statement thanking the government for taking steps to protect the area.
“These lands are sacred to the Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples and nursery to the Porcupine caribou, polar bears, and millions of migratory birds,” they wrote. “More work remains, however, and we look forward to working with the administration on stronger action to correct this unlawful leasing program and preserve one of our nation’s most majestic public lands. We also look to the administration and Congress to now prioritize repealing the ongoing threat posed by the statutory oil leasing mandate and restoring protections to America’s Serengeti.”
It’s unclear if the government could discover sufficient evidence to revoke the leases entirely.
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Republicans in the state were outraged by the suspension, claiming that the majority of Alaskans favor the use of the Coastal Plan for petroleum exploration and future development.
Senator Lisa Murkowski called the decision “not unexpected but outrageous nonetheless.”
“This action serves no purpose other than to obstruct Alaska’s economy and put our energy security at great risk,” she said. “Alaskans are committed to developing our resources responsibly and have demonstrated our ability to do so safely to the world.”
The decision comes as Biden gets under fire from environmentalists for his recent support of fossil fuel projects. The government also defended a different oil drilling project in Alaska in court, last week.
Meanwhile, the president is pushing for a transformation of the U.S. energy industry, including a transition to renewable energy, electric cars, and improvements to the nation’s power system. His plans call for the power industry to be entirely powered by renewable energy by 2035.
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