President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday canceled all remaining Donald Trump-era oil and gas leases in Alaska’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and moved to protect an additional 13 million acres in the nearby National Petroleum Reserve from drilling and other development.
This comes as Biden finds himself under mounting pressure to move more aggressively to curb fossil fuel development on federal lands, as planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions help drive increasingly extreme weather disasters around the globe. And it looks to fulfill the president’s campaign promise to “reverse the Trump administration’s assaults on America’s natural treasures, including by reversing Trump’s attacks on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
In its final weeks, the Trump administration auctioned off rights to drill in the Alaskan refuge’s coastal plain, known as the “1002 area” — which Republicans and oil companies had long fought to gain access to. The GOP tax law that Congress passed in late 2017 included a provision, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), requiring the Interior Department to approve a minimum of two oil and gas lease sales — each covering at least 400,000 acres.
The first of those lease sales, however, garnered little interest. Two small oil companies and an Alaska state-owned economic development corporation bid on roughly half of the 1.09 million acres up for grabs. The sale brought in just $14.4 million, less than 1% of an administration’s estimate that oil and gas development in the refuge would generate $1.8 billion in federal revenue over a decade.
The Biden administration initially suspended the Trump-era leases in June 2021, pending the outcome of an internal review. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told reporters Wednesday that the analysis determined the lease sale was “seriously flawed and based on a number of fundamental legal deficiencies.”
Wednesday’s action voids the remaining seven leases, which cover some 365,000 acres. Two leases were previously canceled and refunded at the request of the high bidders.
“With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth,” Haaland said. “Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime, and we cannot ignore the disproportionate impact being felt in the Arctic.”
Asked about the second Artic refuge lease sale required under the 2017 tax law, a senior administration official said simply that the Interior Department intends to follow the law.
Along with the lease cancellation, Interior unveiled a proposed rule aimed at safeguarding 13 million acres in Alaska’s National Petroleum, including a full ban on oil and gas leasing on 10.6 million of those acres — more than 40% of the reserve.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.