Republicans and irate Alaska lawmakers slammed the Biden administration Wednesday after the White House said it would cancel the last remaining oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The move, which came alongside new limits on oil leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, prompted cheers from most Democrats, but a furious response from the GOP and the bipartisan Alaska delegation, who said the cancellation not only broke legal contracts but would weaken the United States and lead to higher energy prices.
Some, like Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), could barely contain their anger. He said he was “livid,” while calling the decision “sickening.” Rep. Mary Peltola, the state’s lone Democrat in Congress, said she was “frustrated.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening that it was “incredible to think that people are going to trust this administration on anything related to oil in Alaska again.”
Murkowski, a moderate who swayed President Joe Biden earlier this year to greenlight the Willow project, a controversial drilling plan in Alaska, was asked whether there was anything she could do to pressure the administration to reverse course — or to show them the political consequences of their actions.
Murkowski said only “Yes,” and then smiled and did not respond when asked if she could further elaborate.
Murkowski is the top Republican on the subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and other environment agencies. It’s unclear whether she could succeed in adding language to forthcoming legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
In addition to circumventing the Interior Department to compel the White House to approve the $8 billion Willow project, Murkowski had success in lobbying the Biden administration to replace its initial pick for deputy Interior secretary, Elizabeth Klein, with a nominee viewed as more favorable to Alaskan energy priority, Tommy Beaudreau.
Klein has since been named as director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a position leading the public oil, gas and wind programs off the nation’s coasts.
Murkowski had also stood alongside Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in pledging to block confirmation of Laura Daniel-Davis, Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary for lands and mineral management at Interior who has become a proxy for the wrath of pro-fossil fuel lawmakers looking to punish the administration for its energy agenda.
Daniel-Davis is serving as Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary of lands and minerals management. Like Klein’s post, it is a position that does not require Senate confirmation.
In March, Manchin said he would not support Daniel-Davis’ nomination, citing what he said was the Biden administration’s appeasing of “radical activists” in the environmental community.
In a statement Wednesday, Manchin called the latest move “yet another example of this administration’s caving to the radical left with no regard for clear direction from Congress or American energy security.”
He added, “This is another attempt to use executive action to circumvent a law to accomplish what this administration does not have the votes to achieve in Congress. Canceling valid leases, removing acreage from future sales, and attempting to reduce production in Alaska while taking steps to allow Iran and Venezuela to produce more oil — with fewer environmental regulations — makes no sense and is frankly embarrassing.”
He did not indicate future plans to hold up other nominees on the grounds of his displeasure.
The seven oil and gas leases announced for the chopping black Wednesday were sold by the Trump administration in 2021, just days before President Joe Biden took office and pledged to stand in the way of drilling in the pristine refuge.
Located on Alaska’s northern coastline, the 19-million-acre refuge could hold more than 10 billion barrels of oil, offering a boon to the state’s declining production.
But ANWR exploration has been held back for decades, thanks to Democratic lawmakers and campaigns by some Alaska Natives and environmental groups.
That long standoff was reversed in 2017, when the Republican-led Congress passed a tax overhaul, including a rider inked by Murkowski to create an oil program in the refuge’s coastal plain.
It ordered two lease auctions by 2024. The first was carried out by the Trump administration. The outlook for the second sale under the Biden administration is unclear.
The administration Wednesday released a draft supplemental environmental review of the Trump administration’s oil program in the refuge, arguing that it was legally flawed.
But Sullivan, in an interview on Capitol Hill, called the Biden administration’s reversal “a legal charade” that constituted “complete abdication of following the rule of law.”
“We’re livid,” Sullivan continued. “Who the hell in their right mind would invest money in a lease sale when they just watched the first lease sale get yanked? … It’s not only frustrating; it’s sickening.”
He echoed Murkowski in suggesting there will be an effort to push back or reverse the decision, but did not give specific details.
Peltola said in a statement that the Biden administration had shown it was “capable of listening to Alaskans with the approval of the Willow Project” but has failed to do that with ANWR.
“It is some of those same Inupiat North Slope communities who are most impacted by this decision,” Peltola continued. “I will continue to advocate for them and for Alaska’s ability to explore and develop our natural resources, from the critical minerals we need for our clean energy transition to the domestic oil and gas we need to get us there.”
In addition to revoking the oil and gas leases this week, the Biden administration said it would beef up protections in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The 23-million-acre reserve is the largest swath of public lands in the country. Biden is proposing to solidify current leasing restrictions that cover nearly half the reserve with an explicit ban on new oil and gas leasing on 10.6 million acres.
With a presidential election year looming, Biden’s new Arctic oil decisions are sure to become a political barb for Republicans who have accused the White House of misguided energy policy since 2021.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has used that perch to criticize the White House for reining in oil and gas. He called the new Alaska oil and gas prohibitions part of a “war on American energy.”
“With the stroke of a pen, his administration is placing more than 40 percent of the National Petroleum Reserve off limits for petroleum production,” he said in a statement. “Not only is this bad energy policy, it’s bad foreign policy.”
But Democrats defended the president’s efforts in the Arctic this week as a necessity for the climate — and a check on the lingering pro-oil policies of the Trump era.
House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the ANWR oil and gas program was riddled with legal flaws, including a failure to fully consider a range of alternatives on leasing and to adequately explore the potential downstream greenhouse gas contributions of leasing decisions.
“Of all the Trump administration’s shameless gifts to Big Oil, the ANWR leasing program had to be one of their most egregious,” he said in a statement.
He added: “The ANWR lease sale never should have happened. I’m glad to see the Biden administration putting our legal and moral responsibilities to protect our environment, listen to tribes, and do right by American taxpayers above polluter profits.”
Reporter Rebekah Alvey contributed.
This story also appears in Energywire.