The U.S. Department of the Interior said Wednesday that it would cancel seven oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and at the same time safeguard more than half of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, both on Alaska’s North Slope.
Both the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) are home to a diverse array of fauna threatened by the climate crisis, including caribou, polar bears and shorebirds.
The federally protected NPR-A consists of 93 million hectares set aside to balance oil and gas development with protection of sensitive lands used by some of Alaska’s Native population.
Last March, President Joe Biden approved the Willow Project, a multibillion-dollar plan for oil drilling there, which ran counter to his campaign promise of “no more drilling on federal lands, period.”
Biden said he had no alternative but to unenthusiastically honor the agreement, which had been made years before his presidency began, though his administration did reduce its size.
When Biden announced that the Willow Project would go ahead, he also unveiled unprecedented plans to grant “maximum protection” to 52 million hectares of the NPR-A. On Wednesday, he made those plans official. About 40 million hectares will be off limits to oil and gas drilling for the foreseeable future. But 7 million hectares can be leased for oil drilling under enhanced oversight.
“We must do everything within our control to care for and protect this fragile ecosystem,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press conference.
One day before Biden’s inauguration, the Trump administration brokered a deal with an Alaskan state development agency for drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2021, the Biden administration issued a temporary moratorium on those leases, arguing that the sale was legally flawed and needed review from Interior.
Biden authorized Haaland to reverse the sale if she found cause to do so. On Wednesday, she did.
The reversal has frustrated several Alaskan politicians, mostly Republicans, who see Haaland’s decision as stifling the state’s economy. In 2017, an Alaskan congressional delegation was able to add language to federal tax legislation requiring the federal government to sell two leases by late 2024. The Biden administration said it would comply with that law.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge holds spiritual significance to the Gwich’in, who are indigenous to the region.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, praised Biden for canceling the seven outstanding leases but said she worried for her people’s future.
“[O]ur sacred land is only temporarily safe from oil and gas development,” she said in a statement. “We urge the administration and our leaders in Congress to repeal the oil and gas program and permanently protect the Arctic Refuge.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.