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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.