Interior Department cancels ANWR oil and gas leases
September 13, 2023
The Biden administration on Sept. 6 announced it is canceling the last remaining oil and gas leases in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Those seven leases, all held by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and sold in a controversial auction held in the final days of former President Donald Trump’s administration, have been in limbo ever since President Joe Biden was sworn into office.
On his first day, Biden issued an order requiring a hold on Arctic refuge development to allow for further scrutiny of the lease sale and its environmental impacts. On June 1, Deb Haaland, secretary of the Department of the Interior, put the leases into suspended status. Interior soon after launched a formal supplemental environmental impact statement, a thorough review of the lease sale.
Last month, a federal judge upheld the administration’s actions on the refuge leases, rejecting arguments from AIDEA that it should be allowed to proceed with exploration.
Haaland, in an online news conference, said the lease cancellation protects the refuge’s coastal plain. “With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on earth,” she said.
However, the administration will abide by the provisions of a 2017 law that requires a second Arctic refuge lease sale by the end of 2024, according to an administration official.
Interior on Wednesday also announced a proposal for enhanced protections in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the 23-million-acre land unit on the western part of the North Slope. Haaland said the new protections are proposed to respond to accelerated climate change in the Arctic and to protect resources important to Indigenous people.
“Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime, and we cannot ignore the disproportionate impact being felt in the Arctic. We must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem,” she said.
The proposed new rules for the National Petroleum Reserve would strengthen protections for the five “special areas” designated in a former President Barack Obama’s administration plan, known as an Integrated Activity Plan, made final in 2013. That plan, which put about half of the reserve off-limits to oil development, remains in effect, despite a Trump administration attempt to replace it with one that would have opened almost all of the reserve to drilling.
The new protections include a provision for automatic reviews every five years that may consider whether to expand the existing special areas or add new areas. The new protections also include more rules limiting surface impacts of oil development where it is allowed to occur, along with provisions for expanding tribal participation through co-stewardship arrangements.
The proposed rules, which are subject to a public comment period, do not affect any existing leases within the reserve, a senior Interior official said in a background briefing, nor will they change federal approval given to ConocoPhillips in March for development of its $7 billion Willow oil project in the petroleum reserve.
The Biden administration announcement drew swift reactions from groups on both sides of the development debate. Opponents of Arctic refuge development celebrated it.
“It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of today’s announcements for Arctic conservation,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.
On the pro-drilling side, Gov. Mike Dunleavy promised a lawsuit over the administration’s action.
“The leases AIDEA hold in ANWR were legally issued in a sale mandated by Congress. It’s clear that President Biden needs a refresher on the constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. Federal agencies don’t get to rewrite laws, and that is exactly what the Department of the Interior is trying to do here,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “We will fight for Alaska’s right to develop its own resources and will be turning to the courts to correct the Biden Administration’s wrong.”
AIDEA also vowed a legal response, calling the administration’s action unlawful.
The agency last month published a formal request seeking companies to conduct work to prepare for a seismic survey in the refuge’s coastal plain.
The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.