The U.S. Interior Department on Tuesday announced that it would suspend controversial oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that were issued in the final days of the Trump administration.
The agency will also conduct a “comprehensive” environmental analysis of the oil and gas leasing program in the refuge, which Congress approved in 2017 at the urging of Alaska’s congressional delegation after decades of failed attempts.
“The department is notifying lessees that it is suspending oil and gas leases in the Arctic Refuge, pending the review, to determine whether the leases should be reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.
During his campaign, Biden vowed to permanently protect the refuge from drilling. His announcement on Tuesday angered Alaska leaders and others who have long sought oil production from the 1.6-million-acre coastal plain inside the refuge.
“We are very disappointed with this decision,” said Alan Weitzner, executive director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
Asked if a lawsuit could be next, Weitzner said it was too early to know what the agency will do next.
“This is a major move the Biden administration has taken, and we’re trying to digest it,” Weitzner said. “We remain very focused on the rights we have under those leases.”
Conservation and tribal groups who are suing to stop development in the refuge amid concerns about impacts to imperiled polar bears, caribou and Native subsistence hunters supported the move.
The announcement comes just days after the Biden administration threw its support behind ConocoPhillips’ large oil field on a different stretch of federal land on Alaska’s North Slope, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to the west of the refuge.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday released a secretarial order to “initiate a comprehensive environmental analysis to review the potential impacts of the (oil and gas) program,” according to a statement from Interior.
The analysis will also address legal deficiencies in the current leasing program’s environmental review conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act, the statement said.
Haaland’s two-page order said the leasing program contains multiple deficiencies, including not adequately analyzing other alternatives to the program that was implemented.
Within 60 days of the order, the agency will publish a notice of intent in the Federal Register to launch the analysis. The agency will decide what action to take with the leases following the analysis.
Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters last week that the Biden administration has an “enormously high legal bar” to meet to stop drilling in the refuge because the 2017 law required two lease sales, one by the end of 2021 and the other by 2024. The federal government has already issued property rights, in the form of the leases, creating another hurdle.
“The statute is 100% clear,” he said.
Tuesday’s move follows Biden’s executive order, made on his first day in office, that placed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas activity in the refuge. The order suggested that a review of the oil and gas program, conducted by the Trump administration, was legally flawed.
The Trump administration held the Jan. 6 lease sale after U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason allowed the sale to proceed. But the sale produced little interest after major banks announced they would not finance new oil and gas projects amid climate change concerns.
No major oil companies bid in the sale, and the federal government issued nine leases covering more than 430,000 acres in the refuge, with the non-AIDEA leases going to a small company from Australia and another from Alaska. The sale raised about $12 million, hundreds of millions of dollars less than the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would raise when Congress agreed to open the refuge to drilling.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the coastal plain could hold billions of barrels of oil, and Alaska leaders have long sought to allow drilling in the area, about 8% of the 19-million-acre refuge. A major oil discovery would boost jobs, state revenues and help keep oil flowing in the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline.
North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower said in a statement Tuesday that efforts to stop drilling in the refuge counteract local support for the project in the borough and Kaktovik, the only village in the refuge.
“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,” Brower said.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, thanked the Biden administration for taking the right step. The group represents Gwich’in people in Canada and Alaska, including in Arctic Village, located outside the refuge’s southern boundary.
“After fighting so hard to protect these lands and the Porcupine caribou herd, trusting the guidance of our ancestors and elders, and the allyship of people around the world, we can now look for further action by the administration and to Congress to repeal the leasing program,” said Demientieff.
Ellen Montgomery, with Environment America, said in a statement that the lease program was rushed.
“We’re calling on Congress to establish permanent protections for this wild, remote area,” she said. “Oil leases should never have been sold in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and we now need our leaders to make sure it never happens again.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.