WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Tuesday suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reversing a drilling program approved by the Trump administration and reviving a political fight over a remote region that is home to polar bears and other wildlife – and a rich reserve of oil.
The order by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland follows a temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease activities imposed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office. Biden's Jan. 20 executive order suggested a new environmental review was needed to address possible legal flaws in a drilling program approved by the Trump administration under a 2017 law enacted by Congress.
After a required review, Interior said it “identified defects in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases, including the lack of analysis of a reasonable range of alternatives'' required under the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law.
The remote, 19.6 million-acre refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife, including migrating birds from six continents. Republicans and the oil industry have long been trying to open up the oil-rich refuge, which is considered sacred by the Indigenous Gwich'in, for drilling. Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes have been trying to block it.
Environmental groups and Democrats cheered the Interior Department order, while Alaska's all-Republican congressional delegation slammed it as misguided and illegal.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, held a lease sale for the refuge's coastal plain on Jan. 6, two weeks before Biden took office. Eight days later the agency signed leases for nine tracts totaling nearly 685 square miles. However, the issuance of the leases was not announced publicly until Jan. 19, former President Donald Trump's last full day in office.
Biden has opposed drilling in the region, and environmental groups have been pushing for permanent protections, which Biden called for during the presidential campaign.
The administration's action to suspend the leases comes after officials disappointed environmental groups last week by defending a Trump administration decision to approve a major oil project on Alaska's North Slope. Critics say the action flies in the face of Biden's pledges to address climate change.
Trump's drilling mandate was included in a massive tax cut approved by congressional Republicans during his first year in office. Republicans said it could generate an estimated $1 billion over 10 years, a figure Democrats call preposterously overstated.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a longtime opponent of drilling in the refuge, accused the Trump administration of trying to “shortcut environmental laws.''