Biden to cancel ANWR leases, expand Arctic drilling protections

By Heather Richards | 09/06/2023 03:16 PM EDT

The leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were awarded at the end of the Trump administration. The Biden administration also moved to expand protections in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, months after authorizing the massive Willow project in the region.

Caribou graze in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Caribou graze in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. AP Photo

Nearly three years after the Trump administration sold the first-ever oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the White House Wednesday canceled those leases in a huge blow to pro-oil Alaskans.

The Biden administration said it would revoke the seven remaining oil and gas leases that were sold to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) in 2021 in the refuge, a pristine swath of public lands wedged between Alaska’s Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean that may hold enormous oil and gas reserves.

The administration also said it is proposing to expand existing protections against drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), a 23-million-acre area that lies west of ANWR on the Arctic Coast.


The decision follows the administration’s March approval of the Willow project, an $8 billion drilling program in the NPR-A that angered climate activists and environmental groups.

President Joe Biden touted Wednesday’s move as a kept campaign promise in the “treasured region” and a win in the fight to slow the impact of climate change in the Arctic, where federal experts say global warming is happening at a rate twice as fast as in the rest of the globe.

“Canceling all remaining oil and gas leases issued under the previous administration in the Arctic Refuge and protecting more than 13 million acres in the Western Arctic will help preserve our Arctic lands and wildlife, while honoring the culture, history, and enduring wisdom of Alaska Natives who have lived on these lands,” he said in a statement.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who authorized the lease cancellation, called addressing climate change the “crisis of our lifetime.”

“We cannot ignore the disproportionate impacts being felt in the Arctic,” she said. “With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth.”

Oil and gas groups slammed the Biden administration Wednesday for hypocrisy on oil and gas policy.

“The world demand for oil isn’t going away,” Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement. “Our Commander-in-Chief should be doing everything he can to open more areas, not less, to secure energy independence. This move sends a signal that President Biden isn’t concerned about Alaska or our National Security.”

Long a battleground between drilling interests and environmentalists, the Arctic has been a political hot potato for the Biden administration, representing both some of its most successful conservation policies and its biggest trade-offs to the oil and gas industry.

To soften the blow of Willow’s approval, the White House earlier this year also banned all new oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean and committed to developing new protections for the NPR-A.

Those NPR-A protections announced Wednesday echo existing protections for the reserve. During the Trump administration, oil and gas access to NPR-A was expanded to roughly two-thirds of those lands, a nod to the oil industry’s increasing interest in developing massive discoveries of oil and gas there.

But the Biden administration reversed that effort, restoring protections originally inked during the Obama administration.

In a proposed rulemaking, however, the NPR-A’s division of lands open to oil and gas development or closed could shift in the future. It orders a review every five years that could lead to expanding existing protected lands or the creation of new protected habitats. The Biden administration’s proposal establishes an explicit prohibition on oil and gas leasing across 10.6 million acres, about 40 percent of the reserve.

Biden has committed to blocking oil and gas drilling in ANWR since the 2020 campaign trail. He ordered a review of the refuge’s oil and gas program, inked under the Trump administration, shortly after taking office. The administration suspended the leases the following year. Despite a lawsuit by AIDEA, a federal judge upheld the administration’s authority to do so earlier this year.

The Interior Department on Wednesday released a draft supplemental environmental review of the ANWR oil program inked during the Trump administration. That review undergirds the Interior Department’s claims that the original oil program and the leases sold are legally flawed, officials said.

Environmental groups praised the White House’s decision and expressed hope that it would galvanize the president into taking even more ambitious conservation actions before leaving office.

Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said the leases were “economically infeasible, unlawful, and threatened the Porcupine Caribou Herd and the Gwich’in way of life.”

“We urge the administration and our leaders in Congress to repeal the oil and gas program and permanently protect the Arctic Refuge,” she said in a statement.

Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited, said the announcement was the largest land protection in decades but that the administration has authorities under laws like the Antiquities Act to do more.

“My hope is that this will whet the appetite for the administration to do even more for land protection,” he said.

Left unresolved by the administration Wednesday is how the White House will handle its obligation under the 2017 tax law that created an ANWR oil and gas program to hold a second oil and gas auction in the refuge by 2024.

Asked Wednesday about the next oil sale, a senior Biden official told reporters the administration would “follow the law.”

A spokesperson for AIDEA, the Alaska economic development organization that purchased the oil and gas leases in 2021, said the administration was trying to “circumvent the law,” and the authority said it was committed to a legal battle to attempt to restore the lease rights.

“This latest action by the Department of the Interior against Alaska and Native Alaskans living inside ANWR shows arbitrary disregard for Federal law, based on campaign trail rhetoric,” the group said. “Interior’s action leaves AIDEA one choice, we have to go to court to protect our rights in the ANWR leases.”