Biden freezes oil leases in Alaska refuge pending new environmental review

A new environmental analysis could place additional restrictions on developments in the refuge or potentially cancel the leases altogether, undoing one of the Trump administration’s major political achievements. However, Tuesday’s secretarial order does not go as far as green groups have requested in an ongoing court case aimed at voiding leases that were awarded earlier this year.

The move came after the Biden government disappointed environmental groups last week by helping develop ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the area west of ANWR.

The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, a 1.6 million acre tundra on the northern slope of Alaska, was opened to oil and gas production under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act 2017. The language contained in the bill was drafted by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and gave the Secretary of the Interior power and authority over the lease program, which acted through the Bureau of Land Management. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the sanctuary, played a minor role in the environmental review.

The opening of the coastal plain to drilling marked the culmination of nearly four decades of struggle by the oil industry for access to the sanctuary home to federal polar bears, whose populations have declined dramatically in recent decades, largely due to the waning sea ice. The area open to development also provides a critical habitat for the porcupine caribou herd.

The Trump administration completed the Environmental Impact Statement in less than two years and carried out the first lease sale at the refuge on Jan. 6, just two weeks before leaving office. According to FOIA documents POLITICO received, the DOJ’s required antitrust review of leases was completed in a single day, dramatically speeding up a process that typically takes anywhere from six weeks to several months. On Jan. 8, in a letter signed by Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, the department concluded that the sale was in compliance with antitrust laws.

Despite the oil industry’s long efforts to gain access to the refuge, the lease sale failed, generating only $ 14.4 million in revenues and bids from just three players, none of whom were major oil and gas operators. Seven of the nine offers went to the Alaska Investment Development and Export Authority, a state-owned company urged to participate by former Alaska Governors Bill Walker and Frank Murkowski, who expressed concerns that the industry was not interested in the sale would.

In addition to AIDEA, Knik Arm Services, a real estate and leasing company, and Regenerate Alaska, a subsidiary of the Australian oil and gas company 88 Energy, each received a piece of land.

The leases were signed and issued on January 19th.

Ben Lefebvre contributed to this report

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