Biden cancels Arctic oil drilling leases issued under Trump. Why it matters for the environment — and the 2024 election.

President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the White House in October 2021.
President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the White House in October 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The Biden administration announced Wednesday it was canceling seven oil drilling leases sold by the Trump administration in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

“As the climate crisis warms the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, we have a responsibility to protect this treasured region for all ages,” President Biden said in a statement.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the cancellation of the leases, issued under former President Donald Trump, was legally justified because the environmental review conducted under the previous administration was inadequate.

“With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth,” Haaland said on a press call.

The Alaska congressional delegation and the fossil fuel industry blasted the decision, which they argue will harm the local economy and increase energy costs.

Making good on a pledge

Caribou on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Caribou on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

Under pressure from climate activists, Biden pledged in 2020 to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters.

Continued oil drilling greatly increases the chances that the world will exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming that studies have shown will cause catastrophic consequences.

But to the frustration of environmental activists, Biden has been largely unable to keep his promise. After he paused fossil fuel leasing upon taking office, a federal judge in Louisiana ordered the administration to resume selling offshore oil drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has continued granting permits to drill on existing leases at an even faster rate than under Trump. And the BLM recently greenlit the controversial Willow project, an oil and gas extraction contract on Alaska’s North Slope, which the White House argued it was legally obligated to do under a preexisting lease.

But the Biden administration has also proposed new environmental safeguards for drilling, put some areas off limits altogether and is demanding more money from oil and gas companies that drill on federal land, drawing Republican ire in the process.

In 2017, congressional Republicans passed and Trump signed a tax cut law that included a provision requiring oil drilling in a part of the ANWR. Haaland suspended the leases in June 2021 in order to examine whether the Trump administration had conducted an adequate environmental review.

Since the 2017 law is still in place, the Interior Department is obligated to hold a new lease sale by 2024. However, it intends to implement stricter environmental safeguards and to make an additional 13 million acres of federal land in the area off limits for oil and gas drilling.

Read more from Yahoo News: Biden administration cancels years-long attempt to drill in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, via CNN

Political fallout

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on July 11. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

“Oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge is incompatible with the long-term survival of the Arctic, the Gwich’in Nation’s way of life, and life as we know it,” Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous said in a statement. “By protecting these landscapes and canceling these leases, the White House has made it clear they will take bold action to avert climate catastrophe.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, predicted that Biden’s action will result in “fewer jobs at home, more imports for California and higher prices for everyone.”

Alaska’s other Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, and the state’s sole congressional representative, Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, also condemned the decision in a joint press release with Murkowski.

“This industry needs clear, consistent policies in place to support the long-term investment needed to produce affordable, reliable energy, but the Biden administration instead continues to send mixed signals,” the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, complained in a statement.

The implications for 2024

An oil rig and pump in Stanton, Texas.
An oil rig and pump in Stanton, Texas. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)

While Biden’s action on Wednesday may bolster his standing among young voters who express concern over climate change and favor an end to fossil fuel leasing, Republicans will use it to try to show he has stifled American energy independence.

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the ANWR move a “war on American energy.”

Even though U.S. oil production is currently at an all-time high, gas prices are rising due to global market pressures. The GOP has signaled its intention to make energy costs central to its critique of Biden in 2024. Fact checkers say federal fossil fuel leasing has no short-term effect on gas prices, but polls show voters favor all forms of domestic energy production.