The Biden administration has suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reversing a drilling program former President Trump approved in the remote region rich for its oil reserve during his final days in office, according to reports Tuesday.
According to the Washington Post, who broke the story, the Interior Department aims to unwind nearly a dozen leases following a temporary moratorium on President Biden’s oil and gas lease activities on his first day in office. Officials briefed on the matter told WaPo that the Interior Department would halt the leases on the grounds that the Trump administration didn’t follow proper procedures for the auction.
The order issued by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called for a review of the Trump administration’s leasing program in the wildlife refuge after conducting a required review found “multiple legal deficiencies,” including “insufficient analysis” required by environmental laws and a failure to assess other alternatives. Haaland’s order calls for a temporary moratorium on all activities related to those leases in order to conduct “a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.”
The Trump administration began auctioning off the leases in the refuge’s coastal plains back on Jan. 6, just two weeks before Biden was inaugurated with the sale of 11 tracts in the refuge on just over 550,000 acres netted roughly $14 million. Only two companies put forward competitive bids due to U.S. and Canadian major banks facing opposition from environmental activists and were pressured to announce that they would not participate in financing projects on the Arctic refuge. As a result, only two competitive bids emerged as the main bidder, with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, an Alaska agency winning nearly all of the drilling rights on the land sold at the minimum price of $25 an acre.
The move by the Interior Department is likely to spark another round of major legal battles. Since last August, a number of lawsuits have already been filed by environmental groups, including from the National Audubon Society and Friends of the Earth, following the Trump Interior Department’s announcement that it planned to open up the 1.56 million-acre strip of land along the Beaufort Sea coast for lease sales.
Tuesday’s decision follows a series of oil and mining projects on federal land the Biden administration has supported and defended, including ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil project in Alaska, the Resolution Copper Mining project in Arizona, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. The move angered environmental groups, who have been pushing Biden for permanent protections.
On his first day in office, Biden, in his slew of executive actions, putting the oil industry as one of his primary targets when undoing many of his predecessor’s accomplishments in placing a temporary moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing activities. The executive order recommended a new environmental review to the Trump administration approved drilling program, reversing the 2017 Congressional action enacted to begin leasing in the remote region. Subsequently, the Interior Department issued an order suspending all onshore and offshore fossil fuel-related authorizations for 60 days unless approved first by the department’s senior leadership.
As the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Biden vowed that he would look to thwart drilling, despite the fact that drilling on federal lands accounts for roughly 9% of U.S. onshore production. However, under a 2017 law, leasing in the Arctic Refuge is required so Biden can’t just wish it away as promised. Nonetheless, there were several levers Biden has pulled since taking office, including imposing a lengthy delay and choosing a passionate foe of drilling in the Arctic Refuge.
Haaland, a former New Mexico congresswoman, has voiced passionate opposition to drilling in the Arctic Refuge. In 2018, she spoke at an anti-drilling rally in front of the U.S. Capitol. She had co-sponsored bills in 2019 attempting to block the Bureau of Land Management, which leases land for mining and drilling under the Interior Department, from holding any lease sale in the Arctic Refuge.
In a joint statement, Alaska GOP Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, along with Rep. Don Young and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, both also Republicans, criticized the Interior Department action, arguing the leases sold in January “are valid and cannot be taken away by the federal government.”