In an aggressive move that angered Republicans, the Biden administration canceled the seven remaining oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, overturning sales held in the Trump administration’s waning days, and proposed stronger protections against development on vast swaths of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The Department of Interior’s scrapping of the leases comes after the Biden administration disappointed environmental groups earlier this year by approving the Willow oil project in the petroleum reserve, a massive project by ConocoPhillips Alaska that could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope. Protections are proposed for more than 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers) of land in the reserve in the western Arctic.
Some critics who said the approval of Willow flew in the face of Biden’s pledges to address climate change lauded Wednesday’s announcement. But they said more could be done. Litigation over the approval of the Willow project is pending.
“Alaska is home to many of America’s most breathtaking natural wonders and culturally significant areas. 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 statement.
His actions “meet the urgency of the climate crisis” and will “protect our lands and waters for generations to come,” Biden said.
Alaska’s Republican governor condemned Biden’s moves and threatened to sue. And at least one Democratic lawmaker said the decision could hurt Indigenous communities in an isolated region where oil development is an important economic driver.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who drew criticism for her role in the approval of the Willow project, said Wednesday that “no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on earth.” However, a 2017 law mandates another lease sale by late 2024. Administration officials said they intend to comply with the law.
The Biden administration also announced proposed rules aimed at providing stronger protections against new leasing and development in portions of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that are designated as special areas for their wildlife, subsistence, scenic or other values. The proposal still must go through public comment. Willow lies within the reserve but was not expected to be affected by the proposed rules.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 1.5-million-acre (600,000-hectare) coastal plain, which lies along the Beaufort Sea on Alaska’s northeastern edge, is seen as sacred by the Indigenous Gwich’in because it is where caribou they rely on migrate and come to give birth. The plain is marked by hills, rivers and small lakes and tundra. Migratory birds and caribou pass through the plain, which provides habitat for wildlife including polar bears and wolves.
Alaska political leaders — including some Democrats — have long pushed to allow oil and gas drilling in the refuge in part because of its economic impact on Indigenous communities in an area with few other jobs. Many of those same voices pressed Biden to approve the Willow project for the same reason.
“I am deeply frustrated by the reversal of these leases in ANWR,” said U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, using a common shorthand for the refuge. “This administration showed that it is capable of listening to Alaskans with the approval of the Willow Project, and it is some of those same Inupiat North Slope communities who are most impacted by this decision. I will continue to advocate for them and for Alaska’s ability to explore and develop our natural resources.”
Alaska’s congressional delegation in 2017 succeeded in getting language added to a federal tax law that called for the U.S. government to hold two lease sales in the region by late 2024.
Drilling opponents on Wednesday urged Congress to repeal the leasing provision from the 2017 law and permanently make the coastal plain off limits to drilling.
“It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of today’s announcements for Arctic conservation,” said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society. “Once again, the Arctic Refuge is free of oil leases. Our climate is a bit safer and there is renewed hope for permanently protecting one of the last great wild landscapes in America.”
Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan denounced Biden’s actions as the latest volley in what he called a “war on Alaska.”
Two other leases that were issued as part of the first-of-its-kind sale for the refuge in January 2021 were previously given up by the small companies that held them amid legal wrangling and uncertainty over the drilling program.
After taking office, Biden issued an executive order calling for a temporary moratorium on activities related to the leasing program and for the Interior secretary to review the program. Haaland later in 2021 ordered a new environmental review after concluding there were “multiple legal deficiencies” underlying the Trump-era leasing program. Haaland halted activities related to the leasing program pending the new analysis.
A draft environmental review was released Wednesday.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state corporation that won seven leases in the 2021 sale, sued over the moratorium. But a federal judge recently found the delay by Interior to conduct a new review was not unreasonable.
The corporation obtained the leases to preserve drilling rights in case oil companies did not come forward. Major oil companies sat out the sale, held after prominent banks had announced they would not finance Arctic oil and gas projects.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, thanked the administration for the lease cancellation — but issued a warning.
“We know that our sacred land is only temporarily safe from oil and gas development,” she said. “We urge the administration and our leaders in Congress to repeal the oil and gas program and permanently protect the Arctic Refuge.”