State sues Interior Department to revive oil and gas leases in ANWR
November 1, 2023
Alaska’s industrial development agency has sued the Biden administration in an attempt to revive its Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas leases.
The lawsuit filed Oct. 18 by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority alleges that the Department of the Interior violated federal laws and its own regulations when it canceled the leases last month.
Interior’s actions were politically motivated and illegally deprived AIDEA and the state of the economic benefits that would come from drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain, an area that is known to contain oil, the lawsuit argues.
“Cancellation of the lease agreements eliminates AIDEA’s property rights in exploring and developing these leases and prevents all of the expected benefits that would have come from developing an oil and gas program on these lands, seriously harming AIDEA,” said the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
AIDEA was the main bidder in the ANWR lease sale held in January 2021 as one of the Trump administration’s last actions. One small oil company and one Anchorage real estate company submitted the only two other bids but later returned their leases.
The state agency has written checks for about $20 million in bonus bids and lease payments to maintain its rights to the leases.
The debate over oil drilling in the Arctic refuge has raged for decades. Supporters of drilling, including most Alaska political leaders, have argued that the area would provide valuable oil supplies. Opponents say oil development would irreparably damage the environment, including the Porcupine caribou herd, a huge herd that crowds into the narrow coastal plain each year to give birth to its young.
The 2021 lease sale, mandated through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 signed by then-President Donald Trump, was the first competitive auction of exploration rights there. The sale failed to draw any bids from major oil companies.
President Joe Biden, in an Inauguration Day order, temporarily barred any exploration work on the ANWR leases. That was followed by action in June 2021 by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland that suspended the leases and launched a new study of environmental impacts from oil development in the refuge coastal plain.
Although the leases sold in 2021 are now canceled, the environmental analysis continues for a supplemental environmental impact statement.
AIDEA’s lawsuit over the canceled leases follows an unsuccessful legal attempt by AIDEA to reverse Interior’s earlier suspension of exploration activity on the leases.
In an AIDEA statement that noted the lawsuit was filed on Alaska Day, the state holiday marking the transfer of the then-territory from Russian to U.S. governance, Alaska political leaders praised the action.
“The federal government is determined to strip away Alaska’s ability to support itself, and we have got to stop it,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in the AIDEA statement.
However, opponents of oil development in the refuge criticized AIDEA for trying to pursue a development idea that they said has already been rejected by the oil industry.
AIDEA “is not an oil company,” said Sarah James of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which represents Alaska and Canadian tribes opposed to oil development in the refuge. As for the oil companies, “they’re not interested,” she said. “They’re not buying any leases.”
The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.