Oil and gas leases suspended in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Biden administration moved forward today with its plans to pause — and potentially halt — oil and gas drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Department of the Interior (DOI) announced today that it suspended leases that the previous administration auctioned off to oil and gas developers just weeks before Donald Trump left office.

Today’s decision follows through on an executive order President Joe Biden made on the same day of his inauguration, which asked the Secretary of the Interior to put a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas activities in the refuge. Oil and gas leases will be suspended while the Interior Department conducts a new environmental review, according to a statement issued today. Based on that review, the leases could be voided or subject to additional restrictions.

“Legal deficiencies” with the previous environmental review

The DOI said that it needs to address “legal deficiencies” with the previous environmental review conducted by the Trump administration. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to a dwindling population of polar bears and is where migrating caribou return each year to have their calves.

The Trump administration carried out a hurried lease sale on January 6, giving companies permission to develop more than 430,000 acres of land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Facing heat from indigenous and environmental advocates, major oil and gas companies decided not to bid on leases. So the land sold for dirt cheap — as little as $25 per acre for a total of $14 million. The state-owned Alaska Investment Development and Export Authority got seven of the nine tracts that were auctioned off. The Department of Justice then rushed its antitrust review of the leases, according to FOIA documents obtained by Politico. They completed the review in a single day instead of the weeks or months it normally takes.

“Putting us on the right path forward”

“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,” Tonya Garnett, special projects coordinator for the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, said in a statement according to The New York Times.

But Biden faces pressure from groups hounding him to do more to protect other areas of Alaska from oil and gas infrastructure. Last week, the Biden administration filed a brief supporting ConocoPhillips plans to pump more oil out of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, just west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It also proposed a rule that would allow oil and gas companies to harass polar bears and walruses in the Beaufort Sea and Western Arctic as long as they’re not killed.

Outside of Alaska, activists are calling Biden out for not intervening in two major pipeline battles. Last month, a federal court allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to keep operating while it undergoes an environmental review. And while Biden halted the construction of the Keystone XL, he hasn’t moved to stop the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, the first major pipeline abandonment and replacement project in the US. Opponents say thousands of activists are gearing up for demonstrations against Line 3 this week.

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