On June 1, 2021, the Biden Administration suspended the oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and will complete its own analysis of the program’s environmental impacts, essentially throwing out the analysis done by the Trump Administration.
The Arctic Refuge in the far northeast corner of Alaska is our largest National Wildlife Refuge at nearly 20 million acres, and is unparalleled in its wild grandeur, ecological wholeness, and vast scale. Nearly the entire Refuge is designated Wilderness or recommended for wilderness designation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Polar bears, caribou, muskoxen, wolves, Dall sheep, brown bears, arctic foxes, and more than 200 species of birds depend on the Refuge for survival. Seventy percent of Americans support keeping the Refuge wild and free from fossil fuel extraction.
The Arctic Refuge had gained a reprieve on 1/20/21, when President Biden issued an executive order placing a temporary moratorium on federal government activities aimed at implementing the Trump Administration’s oil and gas leasing program on the Coastal Plain. Biden’s order, citing inadequate environmental review and related legal questions, directs the Secretary to review the leasing program and conduct a new environmental analysis.
On January 6, 2021, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold oil and gas drilling leases on more than half a million acres of the Coastal Plain. Additionally, associated seismic testing proposed across nearly half a million acres also threatens the Coastal Plain, and could kill or displace denning polar bears and turn the Refuge into an industrial wasteland crisscrossed by 90,000-pound “thumper” trucks, airstrips for helicopters and airplanes, bulldozers, tractors, incinerators, and more.
Meanwhile, on August 24, 2020, the Gwitch’in Nation, together with a coalition of conservation organizations including Wilderness Watch filed a lawsuit to stop the Administration’s decision to lease the Coastal Plain, and to turn America’s wildest landscape into another industrial wasteland. We filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Janaury 6, 2021 oil or gas lease sale, but the motion was denied. The judge's ruling was narrow, holding that the lease sale doesn’t pose irreparable harm—a legal requirement for a preliminary injunction—since the lease sale doesn’t approve any ground-disturbing activity. The court concluded that before any ground-disturbing activity can be approved, additional environmental analysis will need to be conducted and that we can again seek an injunction to halt those activities. We are represented by Trustees for Alaska. The legal challenge is still active and moving forward, and we are optimistic that ultimately the Refuge will be safe.
While suspension of the oil and gas leasing program is welcome news, we are disappointed the Biden Administration didn’t go further. The Administration ultimately needs to cancel the program rather than kicking the can down the road. We will keep pushing for stronger action from the Administration, and let you know when there’s a public comment opportunity so your voice can be heard.
In 2017, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and the Trump administration deviously circumvented normal lawmaking procedures to attach an amendment to the Tax Cut bill that opens the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and accompanying development with at least two oil lease sales required on the Refuge’s coastal plain over the next 10 years.
The bill required the Department of Interior to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) on potential development. The decision on the EIS was signed in August 2020 and recommended opening the entire coastal plain, 1.7 million acres, to oil and gas leasing and development.