Biden administration goes back to drawing board on oil leasing in Arctic Refuge

A caribou lying on tundra on purple wildflowers
Caribou migrate annually to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where they shed antlers. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

The U.S. Interior Department announced Tuesday it will reexamine the Trump administration’s decision to lease drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The move is legally complicated by a congressional mandate and because Interior has already issued nine leases to drill on ANWR’s coastal plain.

But Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declared in June that the Trump administration’s environmental study justifying the leasing decision was legally deficient. According to a notice in the Federal Register, her department will conduct a “supplemental” environmental impact study, followed by a decision that may impose new limitations on drilling.

That doesn’t seem fair to Alan Weitzner. He’s the executive director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which owns seven leases in the refuge, covering more than 365,000 acres.

“What it really appears to be is that with a new administration, they’re looking at taking a second kick at the can on what was already done previously on that environmental assessment,” he said. “And we don’t think it’s right.”

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

Weitzner said AIDEA intends to assert its legal rights as a leaseholder.

At the very least, the new process could delay drilling by years. To Mike Scott, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild Alaska campaign, it’s not enough. 

“This is really the time that Congress should take action, and restore the protections by dismantling the leasing program,” he said.

Among the new alternatives to be considered are “those that would: designate certain areas of the Coastal Plain as open or closed to leasing; permit less than 2,000 acres of surface development throughout the Coastal Plain; prohibit surface infrastructure in sensitive areas; and otherwise avoid or mitigate impacts from oil and gas activities,” the notice in the Federal Register says.

After decades of debate, Congress in 2017 required Interior to hold two auctions for drilling leases in the Arctic Refuge. The first, on Jan. 6, drew just three successful bidders and roughly $11.5 million dollars – far less than Congress was counting on. On Jan. 19, the Trump administration issued seven leases to AIDEA, a state-owned corporation, and one apiece to two small firms.

RELATEDArctic refuge lease sale goes bust, as major oil companies skip out

It’s not clear that the Biden administration has the authority to invalidate or impose new limits on those leases.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the Biden administration is trying “to appease radical environmental groups determined to turn our state into one big national park.”

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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