Biden administration puts Arctic refuge leases on ice as it asks for new environmental reviews

The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on July 3, 2019. (Danielle Brigida via Creative Commons)

The Biden administration Tuesday took its first steps toward reversing the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to oil drilling, by suspending leases issued in the final days of the Trump administration.

The suspension comes as no surprise: Biden, on the campaign trail, vowed to adopt permanent protections for the refuge. And on his first day in office, on Jan. 20, he directed the Interior Department to put a “temporary mortarium” on all oil and gas leasing activities in the refuge and to review the environmental impacts of the Trump administration’s oil and gas program for the area.

Now his Interior Department says it’s doing just that. It announced in a written statement Tuesday that it’s conducting a new environmental review of the Trump administration’s oil and gas leasing program for the refuge’s coastal plain while addressing what it called “legal deficiencies.”

All activities related to the program — including the current leases — are suspended until the review is complete. The department will then decide whether the leases should be “reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures,” the statement said.

The refuge’s coastal plain — the area Congress opened to drilling in 2017 — is the northernmost slice of the Arctic refuge.

It’s home to migrating caribou, polar bears, birds and other wildlife. It also potentially sits atop billions of barrels of oil, according to federal estimates. Some Indigenous Iñupiat leaders in the village of Kaktovik, which sits within the coastal plain, support oil exploration, while the Gwich’in, who live to the south and subsist on caribou, are opposed.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain is shown in orange. The area covers about 1.6 million area, roughly the size of Delaware, and makes up about 8% of the refuge. (USGS map)

After a decades-long fight over whether to drill for oil in the coastal plain, the Trump administration held the refuge’s first-ever lease sale Jan. 6.

It was a controversial sale, snarled in lawsuits and opposition.

Critics said it was rushed, sloppy and a threat to animals and the environment. But supporters said drilling in the refuge is good for jobs and the country’s energy independence.

The sale ended up drawing little interest; no major oil companies bid on the leases. Instead, two smaller ones each picked up a single lease, and the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority picked up seven. The leases last for 10 years.

An Alaska-based spokesperson with the Bureau of Land Management said she had not been given any information on a suspension by late Tuesday morning.

An AIDEA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, environmental groups and a Gwich’in organization cheered the news of suspended leases.

“The Gwich’in Nation is grateful and heartened by the news that the Biden administration has acted again on its commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life,” said a statement from Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Demientieff said she hopes the Biden administration goes a step farther soon and cancels the existing oil and gas leases and bans drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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