Biden suspends new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands, including in Alaska

National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. (Photo by Bob Wick, image courtesy Bureau of Land Management)

President Joe Biden hit pause Wednesday on any new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands, drawing cheers from conservation groups and criticism from the fossil fuel industry.

“We’re going to review and reset the oil and gas leasing program,” Biden said, before signing a series of executive orders aimed at combating climate change.

A piece of one order directs the Interior Department to suspend new leasing until the review is completed.

The order doesn’t prohibit work on existing oil and gas leases. Because of that, it shouldn’t have an immediate impact on oil operations in Alaska, according to Andy Mack, a former natural resources commissioner for the state.

“Alaskans should take a deep breath because there are already a tremendous number of acres under lease in the most prospective area on federal land, which is the National Petroleum Reserve,” he said.

The reserve, on the western North Slope, is home to some of the state’s biggest, planned oil projects — including ConocoPhillips’ Willow prospect. A Conoco spokeswoman said the company has the required permits for its work in the reserve this winter.

But Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said she’s concerned about the impact of Biden’s order beyond this winter.

There’s no set time limit for the Interior’s review, according to a department spokesman.

“So,” Moriarty said, “you don’t know how long that ban on leasing is going to be.”

Moriarty also expects the suspension to be the first step in sweeping changes under Biden.

“I think it’s fair to say that our leasing and permitting program on federal lands is going to change. We just don’t know how, and we just don’t know when,” she said. “So that’s just a recipe for the most extreme uncertainty that I could think of.”

While the majority of Alaska’s oil production currently comes from state lands, Moriarty said, “the future is in federal lands.”

Biden’s order to suspend leasing indefinitely follows a 60-day pause on new drilling permits and leases on federal land, unless approved by top Interior officials.

On his first day in office, the president also imposed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Conservation groups have applauded Biden’s orders, saying they’re major steps in the right direction, and a sharp shift from the policies of the Trump administration.

“We’re going to need a bunch more work in the years ahead to correct a lot of the damage that President Trump did in the past four years,” said Andy Moderow, state director for the Alaska Wilderness League.

“But I think we’re on a good strong course,” he said. “And we’re grateful for Biden’s leadership.”

Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, an advocacy group of Inupiat leadership organizations across the North Slope, doesn’t agree.

In a statement, the group said Biden’s orders halting leasing in the reserve and work in the Arctic refuge will have a significant impact on the region’s economy and jobs.

“We’re not climate change deniers. We have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years and have witnessed first-hand its effects on coastal erosion, melting sea ice and subsistence resources. We’ve worked hard to balance the health of our environment and culture with the survival of our people and communities, and we’ll continue to do so,” North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower said in a statement from the group.

“Shutting down the industry that supports virtually everything in our region – especially as we struggle with the effects of a global pandemic – will have very real, negative consequences for the indigenous people, and all residents, of the North Slope,” Brower said.

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