Biden administration puts Arctic refuge leases on ice as it asks for new environmental reviews

a herd of caribouo eat grass in some rolling hills
The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on July 3, 2019. (Danielle Brigida via Creative Commons)

The Biden administration Tuesday took its first steps toward reversing the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to oil drilling, by suspending leases issued in the final days of the Trump administration.

Biden, on the campaign trail, had vowed to adopt permanent protections for the refuge. And then, on his first day in office, he ordered a “temporary moratorium” on oil and gas leasing in the refuge’s northernmost slice, called the coastal plain.

His Interior Department now says it will conduct a new environmental review of the Trump administration’s oil and gas leasing program for the coastal plain, while addressing what it called “legal deficiencies.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed the formal order Tuesday.

RELATED: Biden immediately slams the brakes on oil drilling in Arctic refuge

All activities related to the program — including the first-ever oil leases for the land, approved under Trump — are suspended until the review is complete, the Interior said. The department will then decide whether the leases should be “reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures.”

Mixed reaction

It’s the latest chapter in a 40-year fight between Republicans and Democrats over whether to drill for oil in the coastal plain.

Alaska’s all-Republican Congressional delegation and governor blasted the Interior’s decision, while enviornmental groups applauded it.

“The Biden administration’s actions are not unexpected but are outrageous nonetheless,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

A white woman in a pink coat speaks with a microphone
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks to reporters in the Alaska Capitol in Juneau after her annual address to the Legislature on Feb. 18, 2020. (Skip Gray/KTOO)

Murkowski was a key player in opening the refuge’s coastal plain to oil development in 2017.

A piece of the massive 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act not only allowed drilling in the coastal plain, but also ordered the Interior to hold two oil lease sales there: One by the end of 2021 and the second by the end of 2024.

The coastal plain potentially sits atop billions of barrels of oil, according to federal estimates. But it’s also home to migrating caribou, polar bears, birds and other wildlife

Some Indigenous Iñupiat leaders in the village of Kaktovik, which sits within the coastal plain, support oil exploration, while the Gwich’in, who live to the south and subsist on caribou, are opposed.

“Federal overreach or, in some cases, just being ignored is what has crippled the spirit of Kaktovik residents for years when it comes to federal policymakers,” North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. said in a statement. “We have to find a better way.”

People sit around a table at a meeting.
Bernadette Demientieff, director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, waits to testify at a U.S. House hearing on the Arctic Refuge. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, is hoping Biden goes even farther and cancels the leases.

“This is good news,” she said in a phone interview from Fairbanks. “We were expecting more. But, you know, we’ll take what we got. And we do understand that they have to follow their laws, something that the former administration refused to do.”

In a statement Tuesday, White House climate policy adviser Gina McCarthy described the suspension as an “important step forward” in fulfilling Biden’s promise to protect the refuge.

“President Biden believes America’s national treasures are cultural and economic cornerstones of our country and he is grateful for the prompt action by the Department of the Interior to suspend all leasing pending a review of decisions made in the last administration’s final days that could have changes the character of this special place forever,” the statement said.

Lease sale goes bust

The existing oil leases stem from the first-ever lease sale in the refuge, held on Jan. 6.

It was a controversial sale, snarled in lawsuits and opposition. 

Critics said it was rushed, sloppy and a threat to animals and the environment. But supporters said drilling in the refuge is good for jobs and the country’s energy independence.

RELATEDGwich’in, conservation groups ask court to block ANWR oil leasing

A map of Alaska, outlining the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain is shown in orange. The area covers about 1.6 million area, roughly the size of Delaware, and makes up about 8% of the refuge. Oil drilling is not allowed in he wilderness area below it. (USGS map)

The sale ended up drawing little interest: No major oil companies bid on the leases. Instead, two smaller ones each picked up a single lease, and the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority picked up seven — it’s first time ever holding federal oil leases. The leases last for 10 years.

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

Alan Weitzner, the state authority’s executive director, underscored that the leases are contracts. The suspension frustrated him.

By Tuesday afternoon, he said, he had not heard from the Interior directly, and instead learned of its decision in news reports and in its written statement released to the public.

“Very disappointed, surprised that they’re identifying what currently, to us, are unknown deficiencies within the program itself,” he said.

Weitzner said he’ll wait until the Interior finishes its review to figure out next steps.

Without knowing what the outcome of the review will be, it’s difficult to gage the potential impacts, said Patrick Bergt, regulatory and legal affairs manager at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. But at the very least, he said, it will delay any oil and gas work in the coastal plain, also called the 10-02 area.

“In terms of who’s most immediately impacted by the delay, I think it’s going to be Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. who has recently been pushing to explore the 10-02 area,” he said.

RELATED: Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. blames feds for missed ANWR deadline, demands apology

Bergt said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the Tuesday announcement. The oil and gas group had hoped the Biden administration would defend the Interior Department’s environmental reviews done under former President Trump, which Bergt described as “exhaustive.”

A white man in a blue zipper jacket sits at a table and speaks
Gov. Mike Dunleavy (Official Dunleavy Photo)

Meanwhile, Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy described the lease suspension as an “assault on Alaska’s economy” and pledged to use “every means necessary to undo this egregious federal overreach.”

Dunleavy and Alaska’s congressional delegation argue that the suspension goes against the law, which also would require Biden to hold a second lease sale in the coastal plain by the end of 2024.

‘Whiplash’

The Biden administration’s suspension comes on the heels of its decision to defend ConocoPhillips’ major oil drilling development to the west of the refuge in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. That project, called Willow, got the go-ahead under the Trump administration.

RELATED: Biden administration throws support behind massive Willow oil project in NPR-A

Alaskans are likely suffering “whiplash,” said a statement Tuesday from state Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage. Revak criticized Biden’s move to pause oil leasing in the refuge.

“Alaska is known internationally as a shining example of environmentally responsible resource development, and yet this administration is stifling economic development and jobs here at home while giving a green light to Russian natural gas projects halfway across the globe,” he said.

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. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, was among those disappointed by the Willow news last week, and applauding the Biden administration on Tuesday, while also asking that it do more.

“Until the leases are canceled, they will remain a threat to one of the wildest places left in America,” Miller said in a statement. “Now we look to the administration and Congress to prioritize legislatively repealing the oil leasing mandate and restore protections to the Arctic Refuge coastal plain.”

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