The Biden administration on Wednesday confirmed it will cancel seven controversial oil and gas leases in an Alaskan wildlife refuge issued at the very end of the Trump administration
The administration had previously announced in June of 2021 that it would review the leases, which give the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority the rights to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
That refuge is home to caribou herds, wolves and more than 200 species of birds, as well as land considered sacred to the Gwich’in people.
“On day one of this administration, President Biden directed us to look at the oil and gas leases sold in the refuge by the previous administration,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said on a call with reporters Wednesday. “What we have found in our analysis is that the lease sale itself was seriously flawed and based on a number of fundamental legal deficiencies.”
In a written statement on the announcement, Biden said the move 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.”
“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,” he added. “My administration will continue to take bold action to meet the urgency of the climate crisis and to protect our lands and waters for generations to come.”
The administration on Wednesday additionally proposed a rule to protect about 13 million acres in another part of Alaska, known as the National Petroleum Reserve — Alaska (NPR-A). It said in a press release that the proposed rule would provide “maximum protection” for “Special Areas” there, including places known as grizzly and polar bear, caribou and migratory bird habitat.
“The proposal would prohibit any new leasing in 10.6 million acres, which is more than 40 percent of the reserve,” Haaland told reporters on the call.
The rule states that it would set new standards for managing and protecting resources in the petroleum reserve, including from “the reasonably foreseeable and significantly adverse effects of oil and gas activities.”
One way it would do this is by requiring the federal government to take steps to avoid these impacts including by setting conditions for or delaying or denying proposed oil and gas extraction.
The administration previously announced that it would issue the NPR-A proposal the day before it approved the Willow Project, a controversial arctic drilling project for which Alaska’s congressional delegation had heavily lobbied.
“This is making good on what we said we would do at that time,” White House climate adviser John Podesta said on the call Wednesday.
Republicans slammed the move.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (Alaska) in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, said “This war on Alaska is devastating for not only Alaska but also the energy security of the nation.”
“This is a grave injustice to the Inupiat people of the North Slope,” Sullivan added. “As evidenced by this and so many of the admin’s actions, the idea of ‘equity’ is being exploited as a hollow political soundbite.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who told The Hill earlier Wednesday he had been informed by the Interior Department that the cancellation was coming, celebrated it as a win.
“It is good news. It’s not mission accomplished, but it preserves a path to permanent protection of the Arctic refuge,” said Huffman, who has introduced a bill to permanently protect the refuge from drilling.
“Ecologically there’s no place like it. The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge is incredibly important from a biodiversity standpoint,” he said. “We shouldn’t be opening up public lands to any new fossil fuel development let alone a uniquely pristine place like the Arctic refuge.”
Huffman, who is among the progressives who were enraged by the Willow Project’s approval, said that while he is pleased with the latest actions, he still opposes the prior decision.
“It doesn’t make my consternation over Willow go away, but it’s good news that stands alone,” he said.
The latest actions come nearly six months after the administration approved the Willow Project, which would enable ConocoPhillips to drill for oil in Alaska for 30 years.
Haaland, an opponent of the project while she was in Congress, was conspicuously absent from the approval announcement itself, which bears the name of Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. In her first public comments following the approval, Haaland called it a “difficult and complex” decision.
Meanwhile, Biden has personally opposed drilling in ANWR, saying on the campaign trail that he would “permanently” protect it. His administration previously suspended the leases there, citing “multiple legal deficiencies.”
When it sold the leases in early 2021, the Trump administration cited a 2017 law requiring two lease sales there by the end of 2024, and characterized the area as “an important asset in meeting the energy needs of our nation.”
Asked about that law on Wednesday, in light of Haaland’s remarks that as a result of the action, “no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth,” a senior administration official told reporters that “we intend to comply with the law.”
In a statement praising the decision, Sierra Club President Ben Jealous called the move a continuation of some of environmentalists’ longest-lived goals.
“The effort to protect and preserve the Arctic Refuge was one of the first major battles of the modern environmental movement,” Jealous said. “Now, the Arctic and the communities and wildlife that rely on it are on the frontlines of climate change. Today, in listening to the Gwich’in Nation and the American people, President Biden showed that this treasured landscape is also the frontline of climate action.”
—Updated at 5:42 p.m.