The U.S. Interior Department on Sept. 6 said it would cancel oil and gas leases in a federal wildlife refuge that were bought by an Alaska state development agency in the final days of former President Donald Trump's administration.
Trump's Republican administration issued the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) seven leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) a day before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, a Democrat who had pledged to protect the 19.6 million-acre (7.7 million hectares) habitat for polar bears and caribou.
Environmentalists and an Alaska indigenous group praised the move while a Republican Senator from Alaska slammed it. AIDEA officials were not immediately available for comment.
Interior also said it would protect 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a 23 million-acre area on the state's North Slope that is the largest undisturbed public land in the U.S. The agency would prohibit new leasing on more than 10 million acres, or more than 40% of the reserve.
"As the climate crisis warms the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, we have a responsibility to protect this treasured region for all ages," Biden said in a news release. "Canceling all remaining oil and gas leases issued under the previous administration in the Arctic Refuge and protecting more than 13 million acres in the Western Arctic will help preserve our Arctic lands and wildlife, while honoring the culture, history, and enduring wisdom of Alaska Natives who have lived on these lands since time immemorial."
The actions are the latest effort by Biden to rein in oil and gas activities on public lands, part of a broader agenda to combat climate change. Biden, who is gearing up to run for re-election in 2024, possibly against Trump, also faces pressure to boost domestic fuel supplies to keep pump prices low. Earlier this year, Interior approved a $7 billion ConocoPhillips drilling project in Alaska that drew criticism from the U.N., which has urged member countries to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.
In a statement, Interior said a new environmental review had determined that the analysis that underlied the agency's 2021 lease sale was "seriously flawed," giving Secretary Deb Haaland authority to cancel the leases.
Frustration in Alaska
Trump's Interior Department in January 2021 sold leases in ANWR over the objections of environmentalists and indigenous groups. A Republican-passed tax bill in 2017 opened the area to oil and gas leasing and directed the department to hold two lease sales by December 2024.
The oil and gas industry largely failed to embrace the 2021 lease sale, which generated just $14 million in high bids, mostly from AIDEA.
Months after the first and only ANWR lease sale, Biden's administration said it would suspend the leases issued pending an environmental review. AIDEA later sued, and last month a federal judge in Alaska dismissed the state agency's claims, saying the government's delay in implementing the ANWR leasing program was reasonable.
The two other entities that won leases at the ANWR lease sale withdrew from their holdings in 2022.
Environmental groups praised Interior's decision.
“We commend Secretary Haaland for canceling unlawfully issued oil-and-gas leases in the Arctic Refuge,” Abigail Dillen, president of environmental group Earthjustice, said in a statement. “Looking ahead, we hope to see the strongest possible protections for the Arctic Refuge and the Western Arctic in the years to come.”
For decades, Alaska officials pushed to open up drilling in ANWR to secure jobs and revenues for the state. Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan criticized Interior's move.
"There is palpable anger and frustration among Alaskans about the Biden administration's unrelenting assault on our economy and our ability to lawfully access our lands," the Republican senator said in an emailed statement.
Alaskan oil production has dwindled in the last three decades. The state currently produces less than 500,000 bbl/d crude, down from more than 2 MMbbl/d in 1988, according to government figures.
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