Biden immediately slams the brakes on oil drilling in Arctic refuge

Two silhouetted figures in the distance around some lakes with mountains in the background
Research biologists pause among the wetlands of the coastal plain, with the Brooks Range in the background. During the short field research season, biologists live and work in this remote camp at the edge of the continent. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

President Joe Biden imposed a “temporary moratorium” on all oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge shortly after taking office on Wednesday, citing the “alleged legal deficiencies underlying the program” and the inadequacy of a required environmental review.

Biden’s move to slam the brakes on drilling in the northeast Alaska refuge is among a list of executive orders the newly-inaugurated president swiftly signed to undo actions by his predecessor.

Read Biden’s executive order tied to the Arctic refuge here.

The new moratorium comes a day after the Trump administration announced, in its final moments, that it had finalized nine 10-year leases for oil drilling in the northernmost slice of the refuge, known as the coastal plain.

The leases are held by two small companies and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation.

The Trump administration faced criticism that it rushed the controversial deals.

RELATED: Gov. Dunleavy says he’s open to working with President Biden but will oppose blocking development

Biden’s executive order directs the Interior Department to review the oil-leasing program for the refuge, and “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law” to do a new analysis of its potential environmental impacts.

Biden campaigned on “permanently protecting” the Arctic refuge, and “reversing Trump’s attacks” on the area, but had not released any specifics about his intentions before Wednesday.

RELATED: Biden hires more Arctic drilling opponents for Interior Department

Larry Persily, a longtime observer of the oil and gas industry in Alaska, said he didn’t expect a moratorium to have immediate, sweeping impacts because there’s no near-term work to stop.

“The leaseholders don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay for activity,” Persily said in an interview Wednesday. “They’ve got to find partners, they’ve got to come up with plans, they’ve got to go for permits, there’s got to be environmental reviews.”

‘A very good day’

Still, environmental groups and Indigenous Gwich’in leaders said the news gave them an overwhelming sense of relief.

“I thanked the creator,”  said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and a longtime drilling opponent. “And I just sat on my couch and looked at my grandson and just cried. Everything I do is for our future generations.”

The Gwich’in live just outside the refuge, and depend on the caribou that commonly give birth in the coastal plain. 

a herd of caribouo eat grass in some rolling hills
The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on July 3, 2019. The Gwich’in live outside of the refuge but harvest caribou from the Porcupine Herd, which breeds in the refuge. (Danielle Brigida via Creative Commons)

They have long worked with environmental groups on an aggressive opposition campaign, arguing that oil development in the refuge would harm wildlife and the land — and exacerbate climate change in a place that’s already warming fast.

Demientieff described Wednesday as “a very good day,” but said “the fight goes on.” The Gwich’in Steering Committee is behind one of four lawsuits that call on a federal judge to cancel the oil leases issued by the Trump administration.

“Permanent protection is what we are looking for,” Demientieff said.

RELATED: ‘We will give you one heck of a fight’: Lawsuits filed against oil drilling plan for Alaska’s Arctic refuge

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, summed up opponents’ feelings another way, saying in a statement: “Our long national nightmare of environmental carnage ends today.”

‘I’m prepared to use every resource available to fight for Alaskans right to have a job’

Drilling booster Gov. Mike Dunleavy, however, was not pleased with Wednesday’s news. He blasted Biden for “making good on his promise to turn Alaska into a large national park.” 

“I’m prepared to use every resource available to fight for Alaskans’ right to have a job, and have a future by taking advantage of every opportunity available to us,” Dunleavy said in a statement. 

A white man speaks in front of a map
Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks in a promotional video about resource development. Dunleavy quickly slammed the Biden drilling moratorium, saying it is treating Alaska like a national park. (Screenshot from Office of Gov. Dunleavy)

RELATED: Gov. Dunleavy says he’s open to working with President Biden but will oppose blocking development

Alaska’s congressional delegation also slammed the move by Biden to block oil development in the refuge, saying they were “disappointed” and “astounded” by his day-one announcement.

“Well that was fast,” U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a statement. “Today, in his inaugural address, President Biden called for national unity and healing. However, just hours earlier, his administration took their cues from radical environmentalists in issuing punitive and divisive actions against Alaska, many other resource development states, and whole sectors of our economy,”

Even before Biden’s action, though, the refuge’s future as a source of oil and jobs was far from secure.

The Trump administration held the refuge’s first lease sale Jan. 6, following a 2017 decision by Congress to open the area to drilling.

RELATED: Arctic refuge lease sale goes bust, as major oil companies skip out 

But the sale drew little interest. No major oil companies bid on the leases. Instead, two smaller companies each picked up a single lease, and the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority picked up seven.

‘We will be at the table for whatever they do’

Former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker had pushed the state to bid on the leases, concerned that the oil industry wouldn’t show up to the sale.

Walker said Wednesday that Biden’s moratorium came as “no surprise at all.” 

Walker said he’s pleased the state now holds the leases, and believes that will give it more power in talks with the Biden administration about the refuge’s future. 

“We will be at the table for whatever they do, which we would not be, had we done nothing,” he said.

Andy Mack, a former natural resources commissioner under Walker, described the leases as “legally binding.” 

If the Biden administration decides to ban oil drilling in the coastal plain, Mack said, it needs to figure out a way to compensate those that would have financially benefited from development, including the state of Alaska and two Alaska Native corporations, Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. and Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

“This needs to be a value exchange,” Mack said. “There has to be something really, really significant placed on the table that we, as a state, can rely on.”

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.