WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Biden administration is suspending Arctic refuge drilling rights that were sold in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, dealing a victory to environmentalists who have argued for decades against oil development in the remote, wild region of Alaska.
Under an Interior Department order issued Tuesday, the agency is temporarily halting action on nine leases spanning more than 400,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while it conducts a fresh environmental analysis of the program.
The department’s Bureau of Land Management will review the potential legal deficiencies and environmental impacts of the Jan. 6 sale of oil leases in the refuge. Just two oil companies and an Alaska economic development corporation participated in buying the right to explore for oil and gas on tracts in the refuge’s coastal plain during that January auction.
White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy called the move “an important step forward fulfilling President Biden’s promise to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
President Joe Biden vowed to permanently protect the refuge during last year’s campaign, and on his first day in office he issued an executive order directing the Interior Department to review Arctic refuge oil development decisions by his predecessor. But his administration has defended a separate Trump-era decision to green light a massive ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve — a top priority for the state’s Republican congressional delegation, including senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in the order that she had “identified multiple legal deficiencies” in the administrative record supporting the leases, including insufficient environmental analysis.
Environmentalists and native Alaskans have made similar arguments in legal challenges to the auction, asserting that the bureau violated federal law by glossing over the potential negative effects of oil development in the Arctic refuge’s 1.56-million-acre coastal plain and failed to sufficiently consider alternatives that would minimize the risks. They also argue industrial oil development would threaten one of America’s last truly wild places, as well as the calving caribou, migratory birds and Arctic foxes that rely on it.
Arctic oil foes also have questioned whether the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority was legally qualified to participate in the sale. Although the state-owned company has financed small oil projects in Alaska, it has never sought to acquire its own drilling rights, and BLM has previously disqualified bids by entities with no intent to develop their leases.
The Biden administration’s suspension falls short of some advocates’ push for the entire lease sale to be immediately invalidated. The comprehensive environmental analysis could still lead to that outcome, but the Biden administration still faces a mandate from Congress to hold two coastal plain oil auctions by Dec. 22, 2024, as a way to pay for the 2017 tax cuts.
The move was celebrated by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, an organization representing indigenous people who don’t live in the refuge but subsist on the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates through it.
“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,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in an emailed news release. “There is so much more to do to protect these lands for future generations.”