Caribou in the Arctic Refuge
Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion on Tues­day sus­pend­ed oil drilling leas­es in Alaska’s Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge, grant­ed by the Trump regime days before Trump left office. The deci­sion could set the stage for a con­clu­sion to the forty-year bat­tle over whether to open the Refuge’s coastal plain to drilling. The plain serves as a calv­ing ground to more than 100,000 ani­mals of the Por­cu­pine Cari­bou Herd.

The Arc­tic Refuge, at nine­teen mil­lion acres, is America’s largest wild­land, and major habi­tat not only for cari­bou but wolves, polar bears off the Beau­fort Sea as well as bar­ren ground griz­zly bears. The coastal plain lies just to the east of the Prud­hoe Bay oil field, where pro­duc­tion is on the decline.

Caribou in the Arctic Refuge
Cari­bou graze on the coastal plain of the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a back­drop. (USFWS)

“Pres­i­dent Biden believes America’s nation­al trea­sures are cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic cor­ner­stones of our coun­try and he is grate­ful for the prompt action by the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or to sus­pend all leas­ing pend­ing a review of deci­sions made in the last administration’s final days that could have changed for­ev­er the char­ac­ter of this spe­cial place,” said Gina McCarthy, Biden’s cli­mate adviser.

Days ago, how­ev­er, the Biden admin­is­tra­tion came down in favor of a Trump regime deci­sion that gave Cono­coPhillips a go-ahead for its Wil­low project, locat­ed in the twen­ty-three mil­lion acre Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve west of Prud­hoe Bay. Wil­low is antic­i­pat­ed to yield between 100,000 and 160,000 bar­rels a day.

Sev­en­teen envi­ron­men­tal and Indige­nous groups have filed a fed­er­al law­suit to block Wil­low. The project is sup­port­ed by the Arc­tic Slope Region­al Cor­po­ra­tion, the North Slope Bor­ough, and by Alaska’s Repub­li­can con­gres­sion­al delegation.

The con­trast­ing deci­sions have led to a two-step by Alas­ka law­mak­ers and envi­ron­men­tal groups. Trustees for Alas­ka, a defend­er of the 49th State’s envi­ron­ment, said the Biden admin­is­tra­tion was argu­ing that “bare bones Trump era analy­sis of green­house gas emis­sions should be upheld.” But Sen­a­tor Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska, pro­claimed: “This is a great day for Alaska.”

U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Deb Haa­land, as a mem­ber of Con­gress, signed a state­ment oppos­ing Wil­low. After the admin­is­tra­tion filed its legal brief sup­port­ing the project, Sen­a­tor Dan Sul­li­van, R‑Alaska, sang the prais­es of “an open rela­tion­ship where you can reach out to Cab­i­net officials.”

Added Murkows­ki: “For all the right rea­sons, the admin­is­tra­tion came to the right con­clu­sion and it was the con­clu­sion that we had been argu­ing vig­or­ous­ly for.”

Arctic Refuge panoramic view
The Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge, by Zodi­ac in Demar­ca­tion Bay in Alas­ka (Pho­to: Danielle Brigi­da, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve is home to the West­ern Arc­tic Cari­bou Herd, even larg­er than the Por­cu­pine herd to the east. Teshekpuk Lake and its sur­round­ing wet­land draw migra­to­ry birds from across North America.

An esti­mat­ed 35,000 White Front­ed Geese and 37,000 Brant mold near the lake, which is also home to 60,000 ani­mals of the Teshep­uk Cari­bou Herd.

The great herds evoked then-Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush to say that Alaska’s North Slope is home to “more darned cari­bou than you can shake a stick at.”

Both Bush pres­i­dents relent­less­ly pro­mot­ed oil drilling on Alasaka’s North Slope.

The deci­sion to sus­pend leas­es in the Arc­tic Refuge brought a rever­sal of roles, cries of protest from the Alas­ka del­e­ga­tion and cheers from those who have fought against oil drilling on the coastal plain.

“The Trump administration’s efforts to short­cut envi­ron­men­tal laws fall apart when exposed to the facts that fed­er­al sci­en­tists say Arc­tic Refuge drilling can­not be done safe­ly and oil com­pa­nies don’t want to drill there,” Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, said in a statement.

“Now it is up to Con­gress to per­ma­nent­ly pro­tect this irre­place­able mil­lion-year-old ecosys­tem and facil­i­tate new eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties based on pre­serv­ing America’s pris­tine pub­lic lands for out­door recreation.”

But Alaska’s Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Mike Dun­leavy heat­ed up the par­ti­san boil­er­plate, say­ing in a state­ment: “I oppose this assault on Alaska’s econ­o­my and will use every means nec­es­sary to undo this egre­gious fed­er­al overreach.”

When it passed the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act in 1980, Con­gress enlarged the Refuge to nine­teen mil­lion acres and gave a wilder­ness des­ig­na­tion to eight mil­lion acres, but left open to prospect of drilling the Refuge’s coastal plain with the approval of Con­gress. Pro-oil Alas­ka politi­cians have embraced a cause defined by then-Gov­er­nor Sarah Palin: “Drill, baby, drill.”

Cantwell has become the chief defend­er of the Refuge’s wildness.

Maria Cantwell hosting a healthcare town hall
Maria Cantwell smiles as she lis­tens to a con­stituent ques­tion at a health­care town hall (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

She has resist­ed drilling since she arrived in the Sen­ate in 2001.

She out­ma­neu­vered Alaska’s senior Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Ted Stevens in 2005 when he tried to use a defense autho­riza­tion bill to autho­rize drilling in the Refuge. Stevens erupt­ed on the Sen­ate floor and vowed to cam­paign against Cantwell the fol­low­ing year. (She was reelect­ed with fifty-eight per­cent of the vote.) Repub­li­cans used a sim­i­lar back­door tac­tic in 2017, antic­i­pat­ing drilling rev­enue from the Arc­tic Refuge as part of their Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Cantwell tried to stop the autho­riza­tion but lost on a 52–48 Sen­ate floor vote.

The cause of cli­mate jus­tice has res­onat­ed in Alas­ka, per­haps explain­ing why major oil com­pa­nies shied away from the Trump regime’s call for bids.

Only two small com­pa­nies and a state-owned devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion “bit” at the Trump offer. Sev­er­al promi­nent Wall Street banks have flat­ly stat­ed that they will not finance any drilling plat­forms, pipelines or haul roads in the Refuge.

Alas­ka is warm­ing at a faster clip than any oth­er place in America.

Vis­i­tors to Denali Nation­al Park are treat­ed to “drunk­en forests,” trees lean­ing in var­i­ous direc­tions atop melt­ing permafrost.

Cono­coPhillips has promised to install “chillers” on the Wil­low project, to keep the per­mafrost from thaw­ing beneath its drilling operations.

Biden has sus­pend­ed the lease sales made under the Trump regime. But the new admin­is­tra­tion has not bought back or can­celed the leases.

Its action is expect­ed to set off a pro­longed legal battle.

Drilling in the Arc­tic Refuge – “ANWR”, as the indus­try calls it – has long been the holy grail of pro-devel­op­ment Alas­ka politicians.

In its order Tues­day, the Inte­ri­or Depart­ment said the Trump regime’s hur­ry-up drilling lease pro­gram con­tained “mul­ti­ple legal defi­cien­cies” and did not con­sid­er the impact on cli­mate of oil drilling in the high Arctic.

Haa­land has ordered the depart­ment to con­duct “a new, com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the poten­tial envi­ron­men­tal impacts of the oil and gas program.”

Polar bears in the Refuge
A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beau­fort Sea coast in Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge. (Pho­to: Susanne Miller/USFWS)

The most elo­quent oppo­si­tion to Arc­tic Refuge drilling has long come from the Gwich’in natives of the iso­lat­ed town of Arc­tic Village.

The Gwich’ins depend on the Por­cu­pine herd, whose vast, cir­cu­lar counter-clock­wise migra­tion route ranges into two Cana­di­an nation­al parks.

“The Gwich’in Nation is grate­ful and heart­ened by the news that the Biden admin­is­tra­tion has act­ed again on its com­mit­ment to pro­tect­ing sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life,” the Gwich’ins said in a statement.

Pres­i­dent Biden promised dur­ing last year’s cam­paign that he would pro­tect the Refuge. Atti­tudes toward the coastal plain have reflect­ed par­ti­san leanings.

Ex-Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter and wife Ros­alynn have vis­it­ed the Refuge. The late U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice William O. Dou­glas was among the first to cam­paign for pro­tec­tion of North Slope moun­tains and wetlands.

By con­trast, Bush II Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Gale Nor­ton described the coastal plain as “flat white noth­ing­ness.” Not a per­son with music in her soul.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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