A demonstrator holds a sign against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge outside the U.S. Capitol in December 2018.
President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday canceled all remaining Donald Trump-era oil and gas leases in Alaska’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and moved to protect an additional 13 million acres in the nearby National Petroleum Reserve from drilling and other development.
This comes as Biden finds himself under mounting pressure to move more aggressively to curb fossil fuel development on federal lands, as planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions help drive increasingly extreme weather disasters around the globe. And it looks to fulfill the president’s campaign promise to “reverse the Trump administration’s assaults on America’s natural treasures, including by reversing Trump’s attacks on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
In its final weeks, the Trump administration auctioned off rights to drill in the Alaskan refuge’s coastal plain, known as the “1002 area” — which Republicans and oil companies had long fought to gain access to. The GOP tax law that Congress passed in late 2017 included a provision, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), requiring the Interior Department to approve a minimum of two oil and gas lease sales — each covering at least 400,000 acres.
The first of those lease sales, however, garnered little interest. Two small oil companies and an Alaska state-owned economic development corporation bid on roughly half of the 1.09 million acres up for grabs. The sale brought in just $14.4 million, less than 1% of an administration’s estimate that oil and gas development in the refuge would generate $1.8 billion in federal revenue over a decade.
The Biden administration initially suspended the Trump-era leases in June 2021, pending the outcome of an internal review. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told reporters Wednesday that the analysis determined the lease sale was “seriously flawed and based on a number of fundamental legal deficiencies.”
Wednesday’s action voids the remaining seven leases, all held by the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and which covered some 365,000 acres. Oil companies previously walked away from two leases and requested refunds.
“With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth,” Haaland said. “Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime, and we cannot ignore the disproportionate impact being felt in the Arctic.”
Asked about the second Arctic refuge oil and gas auction required under the 2017 tax law, a senior administration official said simply that the Interior Department intends to follow the law.
My Administration is canceling all remaining oil and gas leases issued under the last administration in the Arctic Refuge and proposing to protect 13 million acres in the Western Arctic.
There's more to do, but we’re taking action to meet the moment for future generations.
— President Biden (@POTUS) September 7, 2023
The refuge, often described as “America’s Serengeti,” covers more than 19 million acres. It is home to polar bears, caribou, moose and hundreds of species of migratory birds and is sacred to the Gwich’in people, an Indigenous tribe of northern Alaska and Canada.
Along with the lease cancellation, Interior unveiled a proposed rule aimed at safeguarding 13 million acres in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, including a full ban on new oil and gas leasing on 10.6 million of those acres — more than 40% of the reserve. Established in 1923, the reserve is the largest tract of federal land in the country and home to vast oil and gas deposits as well as important habitat for polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.
In its relentless quest to boost fossil fuels, the Trump administration increased the acreage open to development within the reserve from 11.8 million to 18.6 million.
Indigenous leaders and environmental groups applauded the Biden administration’s actions to protect Arctic ecosystems.
“Cancellation of these leases is a step to rectify attempted violence against our people, the animals and sacred land,” the Gwich’in Steering Committee said in a statement. “The leases were economically infeasible, threatened the Porcupine Caribou Herd and the Gwich’in way of life, and if developed would have added to the already deteriorating climate in the Arctic and the world over.”
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority accused the administration of circumventing the law and vowed to fight the Interior Department in court.
“Unfortunately, Alaskans can expect more negative campaign decisions shutting down opportunities for jobs and resource development in Alaska,” it said in a statement. “Development in Alaska that would benefit the nation with domestic supplies of resources and ensure trillions of dollars appropriated for the ‘green’ economy do not go to foreign countries with little to no environmental standards.”