The Biden Administration is suspending oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while it reviews the environmental impacts of drilling in this remote region that has been the focus of a political fight for decades.
The Interior Department order was scheduled to be announced yesterday, Tuesday. It follows a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities imposed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office. Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order suggested that a new environmental review was needed to address potential legal flaws in a drilling program approved by the Trump Administration under a 2017 law passed by Congress.
The remote 19.6 million-acre refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife, including migratory birds from six continents. Republicans and the oil industry have long been trying to open the wildlife refuge, considered sacred by the Gwich’in Indians, for drilling.
Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes have been trying to block it. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, held a lease sale for the refuge’s coastal plain on Jan. 6, two weeks before Biden took office. Eight days later, the agency signed leases for nine tracts of land totaling 1,770 square kilometers. However, the issuance of the leases was not publicly announced until Jan. 19, Trump’s last full day in office.
Biden has opposed drilling in the region, and environmental groups have been pushing for permanent protections, which the Democratic front-runner called for during the presidential campaign. The administration’s action to suspend the leases comes after officials disappointed environmental groups last week by defending a Trump administration decision to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.
Critics claim the action runs counter to Biden’s pledges to address climate change. The Justice Department said in a court filing that opponents of the Willow project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve sought to stop the development by “cherry-picking” federal agency records to claim violations of the environmental review law.
The filing defends the reviews underpinning last fall’s decision approving the project plans. A coalition of groups has filed suit to invalidate the Trump-era approval. An appeals court earlier this year halted certain construction activities, and the parties in the case later agreed to uphold limits on construction activities until Dec. 1 while the underlying case continued.