Park ranger hiking the Brooks Range in Alaska
A ranger explores the Brooks Range's arctic wilderness in Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is very close to where mining interests want to build a long access road. The Biden-Harris administration has told them no. (Photo: Josh Spice/National Park Service)

Cit­ing “the urgency of the cli­mate cri­sis,” Pres­i­dent Biden recent­ly banned oil and gas drilling over an expanse of thir­teen mil­lion acres in the west­ern Arc­tic, includ­ing forty per­cent of Alaska’s Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve. The Pres­i­dent has also nixed a pro­posed 211-mile road to access major cop­per and zinc mine proposals.

The admin­is­tra­tion’s action keeps roads out of the Brooks Range and lands of the cari­bou and griz­zly bear, and salmon spawn­ing streams. “These nat­ur­al won­ders deserve our pro­tec­tion: As the cli­mate cri­sis imper­ils com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try, more must be done,” Biden said in a sup­port­ing statement.

Specif­i­cal­ly, the drilling ban is designed to pro­tect the lifestyle and sub­sis­tence hunt­ing rights of native vil­lages in the vast wilder­ness north of Fair­banks. It will, in words of U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Deb Haa­land, safe­guard “the way of life for the indige­nous peo­ple who have called this spe­cial place home from time immemorial.”

It is also designed, in the near term, to relieve polit­i­cal pres­sure on the Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion. The envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty was deeply upset last year when the admin­is­tra­tion approved Cono­coPhillips’ $8 bil­lion Wil­low Project, designed to put 200 wells on three drilling pads on the North Slope west of Prud­hoe Bay.

The ban, timed to Earth Day, is bit­ter­ly opposed by Alaska’s con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion. It con­sti­tutes “nation­al secu­ri­ty sui­cide” and a “law­less” Biden exceed­ed his author­i­ty doing it, Sen­a­tor Dan Sul­li­van, R‑Alaska, said on CBS’ Face the Nation, adding: “Nat­ur­al resources, ener­gy, crit­i­cal min­er­als – that’s Alaska’s strength. This should con­cern all kinds of Americans.”

The twen­ty-three-mil­lion-acre Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve was cre­at­ed one hun­dred and one years ago by Pres­i­dent War­ren G. Hard­ing on his 1923 trip to Alas­ka. It was designed as an ener­gy sup­ply source for U.S. Navy ships. Hard­ing vis­it­ed Seat­tle after­wards and would soon die in his San Fran­cis­co hotel room. The Biden drilling ban comes at a time when the Unit­ed States is pro­duc­ing more oil than any oth­er coun­try on Earth, with gaso­line prices down $1.35 a gal­lon from two years ago.

“It’s no secret that the Reserve – a vast region of tun­dra and wet­lands teem­ing with wildlife – has fre­quent­ly land­ed in the crosshairs of the insa­tiable fos­sil fuels indus­try,” said Jere­my Lieb, attor­ney with Earth­jus­tice: We applaud his (Biden’s) move and call for even bold­er action to keep the fos­sil fuel indus­try out of the Arc­tic for the sake of the cli­mate and for future generations.”

Joe Biden was­n’t a lead­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ist dur­ing his thir­ty-six-year tenure in the U.S. Sen­ate, but has come by the faith in the White House. In Alas­ka alone, he has halt­ed road build­ing into old growth trees of the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est, blocked a huge open pit mine sit­ed between two prime Bris­tol Bay salmon spawn­ing streams, and blocked fur­ther oil and gas leas­ing in the Arc­tic Refuge. Last week, the admin­is­tra­tion upgrad­ed con­ser­va­tion to equal foot­ing with graz­ing, min­ing and ener­gy devel­op­ment over 245 mil­lion acres of fed­er­al land, com­pris­ing one tenth of the nation.

The 46th Pres­i­dent has come to sound like John Muir. 

Wit­ness his state­ment on the drilling ban: “From safe­guard­ing sacred lands near the Grand Canyon to pro­tect­ing Alas­ka trea­sures, my admin­is­tra­tion has con­served more than 41 mil­lion acres of land and water.” He described the Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve as “among the most remark­able and healthy land­scapes in the world, sus­tain­ing a vibrant sub­sis­tence econ­o­my for Alaska’s native communities.”

He’s also respond­ing to nature’s warn­ing signs. 

The Arc­tic is warm­ing at a faster pace than the rest of the plan­et. The con­se­quences can be seen in “drunk­en forests,” trees lean­ing in var­i­ous direc­tions as the per­mafrost melts beneath them. Vil­lages on the Bering and Chuchi Sea coast­lines get hit with fero­cious late fall and ear­ly win­ter storms, no longer get­ting the pro­tec­tion of an ear­ly form­ing ice pack. The retreat of the icepack in sum­mer and fall threat­ens polar bears, which hunt seals off the ice. Inte­ri­or Alas­ka has been hit by mas­sive wildfires.

Still, Alaska’s native pop­u­la­tion is divid­ed on oil drilling and the vetoed Ambler Access road. The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion deci­sion “does not reflect our com­mu­ni­ties’ wish­es,” Nagruk Har­charek, pres­i­dent of the Voice of the Arc­tic Inu­pi­ac, said in a state­ment. It will “hurt the very res­i­dents the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment pur­ports to help by rolling back years of progress and impov­er­ish­ing our com­mu­ni­ties and impov­er­ish our Inu­pi­ac culture.”

The Ambler Access road project would have cre­at­ed 2,500 jobs dur­ing con­struc­tion along with 300 per­ma­nent jobs once the mines were devel­oped. It would also have sup­plied the Unit­ed States with crit­i­cal min­er­als for which this coun­try cur­rent­ly depends on China.

Map show­ing where the pro­posed pri­vate indus­tri­al road would be built (Bureau of Land Management) 

Rose­mary Ahtuan­garu­ak, for­mer may­or of the vil­lage of Nuiq­suit and long­time crit­ic of North Slope ener­gy devel­op­ment, has a dif­fer­ent view. The admin­is­tra­tion deci­sion will allow the land to “con­tin­ue to sus­tain and pass along the tra­di­tions and activ­i­ties of our elders for years and years to come,” she said in a statement.


Devel­op­ment of Prud­hoe Bay, in the ear­ly 1970s, involved a major trade­off. It gave a go-ahead to the mas­sive petro­le­um devel­op­ment, despite envi­ron­men­tal risks that became real­i­ty in 1989 when the super­tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef while exit­ing Prince William Sound. The result was Amer­i­ca’s worst oil spill (until the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter in the Gulf of Mex­i­co just over two decades lat­er) and deep dam­age to the fish­eries econ­o­my and such salmon-depen­dent towns as Cordova.

But the enabling leg­is­la­tion, nar­row­ly passed by Con­gress, pro­duced the one hun­dred and three-mil­lion-acre Alas­ka Lands Act. The nation gained four new nation­al parks, includ­ing Wrangell-St. Elias, Amer­i­ca’s largest nation­al park. The Glac­i­er Bay and Kat­mai Nation­al Mon­u­ments were upgrad­ed to become nation­al parks. More than 900,000 acres of Admi­ral­ty Island in South­east Alas­ka became a nation­al mon­u­ment. Mount McKin­ley Nation­al Park, home to North Amer­i­ca’s high­est moun­tain (at 20,300 feet), tripled in size. It also acquired a new name – Denali Nation­al Park.

The Trump regime saw Alas­ka as a land to be drilled, logged, logged and devel­oped. It offered up oil and gas leas­es in the Arc­tic Refuge just before Trump was forced to exit the Oval Office. It also vacat­ed pro­tec­tions already in place. By con­trast, the Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion has rolled back the roll­backs and rejoined the Paris cli­mate accords. 

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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