WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Tuesday said it would suspend oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that were issued in the waning days of the Trump presidency.
The decision could ultimately end any plans to drill in one of the largest tracts of untouched wilderness in the United States, delicate tundra that is home to migrating waterfowl, caribou and polar bears. Democrats and Republicans have fought over whether to allow oil and gas drilling there for more than four decades, and issuing the leases was a signature achievement of the Trump White House.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday published a secretarial order formally suspending the leases until the agency has completed an environmental analysis of their impact and a legal review of the Trump administration’s decision to grant them.
While the move was widely expected and follows President Biden’s Inauguration Day executive order to halt new Arctic drilling, it serves as a high-profile way for the president to solidify his environmental credentials after coming under fire from activists upset by his recent quiet support for some fossil fuel projects.
“President Biden believes America’s national treasures are cultural and economic cornerstones of our country and he is grateful for the prompt action by the Department of the Interior to suspend all leasing pending a review of decisions made in the last administration’s final days that could have changes the character of this special place forever,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House domestic climate policy adviser.
Arctic tribal leaders who have protested oil drilling praised the move.
“Since we started this effort, we have always been told to work in a good way and if we do, good things will come. We are seeing proof of that today,” Tonya Garnett, special projects coordinator for the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, said in a statement. “I want to thank President Biden and the Interior Department for recognizing the wrongs committed against our people by the last Administration, and for putting us on the right path forward. This goes to show that, no matter the odds, the voices of our Tribes matter.”
The refuge, 19 million acres in the northeastern part of the state, had long been off limits to oil and gas development, with Democrats, environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups successfully fighting efforts to open it.
But Mr. Trump made opening part of the refuge, about 1.5 million acres along the coast, a centerpiece of his program for developing more domestic fossil fuel production. The area, known as the Coastal Plain, is thought to lie over as much as 11 billion barrels of oil.
In 2017, the Republican-controlled Congress included language in a tax bill establishing a leasing program as a way of generating revenue for the federal government. But an environmental review, required under federal law, was only completed last year.
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Environmental groups and others immediately sued the Trump administration, saying the review was faulty. For one thing, they said, the analysis discounted the impact of climate change.
While the issue remained in the courts, the Trump administration went ahead with a lease sale in early January of this year.
There had been little interest in the leases, at least publicly, from major oil companies, given the high cost of producing oil in the Arctic, the growing desire to reduce fossil fuel use, and the reputational risks of drilling in such a pristine area. After lobbying from environmental organizations and Native groups, major banks had pledged not to finance any drilling efforts in the refuge.
The apparent lack of interest was borne out in the sale. Only two companies, neither of them major producers, made bids to acquire 10-year rights to explore and drill for oil on two tracts totaling about 75,000 acres.
A state-owned economic development corporation in Alaska, offering the minimum of $25 an acre, was the sole bidder on the other tracts, totaling about half a million acres. That raised legal issues, including whether the state had standing to purchase leases, that have not been resolved.
Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, one of the groups that had sued the Trump administration, said the leasing program and resulting sale were the result of a “flawed and legally deficient process.”
“Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction,” she said.
The move comes as the Biden administration weathers criticism for recent decisions to either support or fail to block major oil and gas drilling projects.
Last week, Ms. Haaland personally called Senator Lisa Murkowski and the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation to inform them she would approve of a multibillion dollar ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve. The project, which Ms. Haaland opposed when she served in Congress, is expected to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for 30 years, locking in decades of new fossil fuel development.
Earlier this month Mr. Biden opposed in court shutting down the bitterly-contested Dakota Access pipeline, which is carrying about 550,000 barrels of oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. It also could have decided to halt the pipeline while the Army Corps of Engineers conducts a new court-ordered environmental review, but it opted not to intervene.
And in Wyoming, the Biden administration defended 440 oil and gas leases issued by the Trump administration on federal land that is also the critical habitat of the sage grouse, mule deer and pronghorn.