Biden halts oil and gas development in Arctic refuge hours after inauguration

The move was one of the first of Biden's presidency, and came just a day after the Trump administration finalized the transfers of leases from the first sale in the refuge.

By Melody Schreiber, Yereth Rosen - January 21, 2021
President Joe Biden halted efforts to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by executive order on his first day in office. (Alexis Bonogofsky / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In a promised executive order signed just hours after he was sworn in, President Joe Biden on Wednesday halted efforts to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hastily enacted by the outgoing administration of former President Donald Trump.

The order — part of a broader executive order focused on the environment and climate crisis — places “a temporary moratorium on all activities of the Federal Government relating to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program” and requires the Interior Department to conduct a fresh review.

The order also reinstated an Obama-era policy closing most federal offshore waters in the U.S. Arctic and Northern Bering Sea to oil and gas exploration, and restored the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, a vast protected area designed to allow a greater decision-making role for Alaska Natives in the Bering Sea region.

A day earlier, in one of the Trump administration’s last acts, the Bureau of Land Management finalized nine of 11 leases for oil exploration in the coastal plain.

Seven of the leases were issued to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state agency and the only bidder for most of the tracts. Two other leases were issued to Knik Arm Services LLC and Regenerate Alaska Inc, both small independent companies.

In a joint statement Wednesday, Alaska’s Congressional delegation, all Republicans, expressed support for the sale — and dismay at the moratorium.

“At a time when the United States, and especially Alaska, is struggling to deal with the impacts of COVID-19, I am astounded to see that the Biden administration’s ‘day one’ priority is put our economy, jobs, and nation’s security at risk,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in the statement. “In the past month, we have seen significant progress with the sale, signing, and issuing of leases in the non-wilderness 1002 Area. The Biden administration must faithfully implement the law and allow for that good progress to continue.”

U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, after his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States, U.S., January 20, 2021. (Tom Brenner / Reuters)

A lease sale in the refuge was required by law in the 2017 tax bill. But the meager showing by bidders generated far less income than expected in the 2017 bill. Revenue from lease sales between 2021 and 2029 were projected to net $1.8 billion, but this month’s sale drew just $14.4 million.

Biden may also consider making the refuge a national monument under the Antiquities Act, which would prevent further natural resource exploration. And he could undo Trump administration changes that restricted what environmental concerns federal agencies could consider under the National Environmental Policy Act. With the act’s scope again broadened, environmental assessments could make it difficult to issue drilling permits on leased lands.

Meanwhile, four lawsuits pending in federal court in Alaska seek to overturn the Trump administration’s leasing program. Three of the lawsuits are filed by environmental and Alaska Native organizations and the fourth was filed by several Lower 48 states that contend that ANWR oil development will exacerbate climate change and damage migratory bird populations, with effects far beyond Alaska. The lawsuits argue that the Trump administration conducted a shoddy environmental review in a rush to leasing. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, who is overseeing the cases, on Jan. 5 denied a motion for an injunction to pause the lease sale held the following day, but the complaints’ larger questions have yet to be resolved.

Environmental groups celebrated the executive orders.

“Our long national nightmare of environmental carnage ends today,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement.

“And with a new administration that once again respects and values science, we can again acknowledge the realities of the climate crisis and advance solutions that will help create clean energy jobs, lift up frontline communities, and lead to better management and stewardship of our public lands,” Kolton said.

But Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a staunch supporter of efforts to drill in the refuge lambasted the move.

“Today’s announcement to shut down development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge  should come as no surprise,” he said. “As a candidate, Joe Biden campaigned on stopping oil and gas development on federal lands. Make no mistake about it, President Biden appears to be making good on his promise to turn Alaska into a large national park.”

Dunleavy vowed to continue fighting to open the refuge to oil and gas development.

“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.”