Biden administration suspends oil leases in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

The Interior Department will conduct a new environmental review of the leases.

By Yereth Rosen - June 1, 2021
The Biden administration has suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Alexis Bonogofsky / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Citing “legal deficiencies” that include inadequate environmental review, the U.S. Interior Department on Tuesday suspended all activity related oil and gas exploration on leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the department said in a press release.

The suspension comes in the form of an order issued by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The affected leases were sold in January by the outgoing administration of former President Donald Trump.

Activity on those leases had already been halted by an executive order, just hours after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, but that order was a temporary moratorium, pending further review.

[Oil development in Alaska’s Arctic remains in limbo]

This suspension doesn’t end oil and gas drilling in the refuge for good, but it does further extend a halt on activity until a comprehensive analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act is completed. Depending on the new environmental review’s findings the leases could be “reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures,” the agency said.

The refuge has long been a lightning rod for controversy — prized by environmentalists and some Indigenous groups for its ecological values, but eyed by the oil industry and its supporters — including prominent Alaska politicians — as a potential source of billions of barrels of new oil.

But companies’ interest in the region has apparently waned.

A much-anticipated Jan. 6 lease sale held by the Trump administration drew only 13 bids on only 11 tracts, with almost all of the bids submitted by an Alaska state agency, the Alaska Economic Development and Export Authority. Only one bid was submitted by an oil company, an independent based in Australia. There were no bids submitted by major oil companies.

Two days before Biden was inaugurated, the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management formally issued nine of those leases to bidders, but there has been no on-the-ground activity on those leases because of the Inauguration Day order.

Opponents of ANWR oil development hailed the news.

“The Gwich’in Nation is grateful and heartened by the news that the Biden administration has acted again on its commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a statement. “After fighting so hard to protect these lands and the Porcupine caribou herd, trusting the guidance of our ancestors and elders, and the allyship of people around the world, we can now look for further action by the administration and to Congress to repeal the leasing program.”

“The leasing program and resulting lease sale were the result (of) a substantial flawed and legally deficient process that must be reversed,” Kristin Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction and we commend the Biden administration for committing to a new program analysis that prioritizes sound science and adequate tribal consultation.”

But Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a statement, said the administration’s actions violated the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which mandated a leasing program. The Republican governor vowed to fight the Biden policy, invoking William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of state who engineered the transaction with Russia that brought Alaska into the union purchase of Alaska.

“I oppose this assault on Alaska’s economy and will use every means necessary to undo this egregious federal overreach. Alaska does responsible oil and gas development in the Arctic under stricter environmental standards than anywhere else in the world. Yet the federal government is focused on trying to stop our ability to produce oil and gas. Each action they take demonstrates a failure to comprehend the worldwide demand for oil and gas,” Dunleavy said in his statement.

“If Alaska continues to be denied its constitutional right to safely develop resources, countries with much lower environmental standards will gladly fill that void with significant environmental impacts. Shutting down our lands was not what William Seward intended when Alaska was founded and we are not going to allow the Biden administration to turn Alaska into a giant national park.”

The executive director of AIDEA, which holds seven ANWR leases, said there was no proof of the deficiencies cited by Haaland’s order.

“We’re extremely disappointed in the Biden Administration’s effort to prevent Alaska from lawfully and responsibly developing its natural resources as agreed and provided for under ANILCA,” Alan Weitzner, AIDEA’s executive director, said in the statement issued by Dunleavy. ANILCA is the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, signed into law in 1980, which left open the possibility of ANWR oil development in the coastal plain.

Such criticism has little significance, given the poor industry response to the Jan. 6 lease sale, Alaska state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said on Twitter.

“Queue up the hand wringing press releases from Alaska officials proclaiming ‘federal overreach’ because Pres Biden temporarily halted oil leases in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – even though not a single major oil producer bid on those leases just a few months ago,” Wielochowski said on the social media platform.

Even as the Biden administration has halted oil and gas exploration in ANWR, it said last week it would back another Arctic oil project now being litigated, ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil project farther west along the North Slope in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, a move that drew condemnation from environmental advocates.

In light of that administration stance, ConocoPhillips is optimistic about the prospects for Willow, the company’s Alaska president said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“We believe the permitting process satisfied all the legal requirements for Willow and are pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of the Interior, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recognize the robust, thorough, and extensive process completed over the last two-plus years. This is a great example of collaboration and thorough preparation enabling a rational, fact-based decision,” ConocoPhillips Alaska President Erec Isaacson said in the statement.

The support of Willow was praised by Alaska’s all-Republican Congressional delegation. In a May 27 joint statement, Sen. Dan Sullivan said the issue was raised repeatedly with the Biden administration, including at the White House on May 24 when the president signed a bill clearing the way for large cruise ships to sail in Alaska this summer. ” I appreciate the President and Secretary Haaland for listening to us and defending this once-in-a-generation energy development that will unlock many more opportunities for our state and our country,” Sullivan said in the statement.

This story is updated with comments from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, AIDEA executive director Alan Weitzner and state Sen. Bill Wielechowski and with further details on the ConocoPhillips Willow development.