Biden to suspend oil leases in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

The Biden administration is suspending oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as it reviews the environmental impacts of drilling in the remote region that has been the focus of a decades-long political fight, according to two people briefed on the administration’s plan.

The U.S. Interior Department order was set to be announced later Monday. It 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 approved by Congress.

The people briefed on the plan requested anonymity because the plan had not been officially released.

The remote, 7.9 million-hectare 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 the wildlife refuge for drilling, but the area is considered sacred to the Gwich’in, who rely on the refuge, where the Porcupine caribou herd calves.

Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes have been trying to block development in the refuge. 

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department 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 totalling nearly 1,770 square kilometres. 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 his presidential campaign. 

U.S. President Joe Biden has opposed drilling in the region. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

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.

The justice department said in a court filing that opponents of the Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska were trying to stop development by “cherry-picking” the records of federal agencies to claim environmental review law violations. The filing defends the reviews underpinning last fall’s decision approving project plans.

A coalition of groups has sued to invalidate the Trump-era approval. An appeals court earlier this year halted certain construction activities, and parties in the case later agreed to keep in place construction activity limits until Dec. 1 while the case continued.

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