Biden Suspends Trump's Oil Drilling Leases In Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge

A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Susanne Miller/USFWS (CC BY 2.0)

The coastal depths of the Alaskan Arctic are safe from fossil fuel drilling — for now, at least. The Biden administration has temporarily suspended oil and gas drilling leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pushing back against the controversial move by the Trump Administration.

Environmental organizations, conservationists, and Indigenous groups have cheered at the decision, but some Republican politicians weren’t so pleased

On Monday, June 1, the US Department of the Interior announced the suspension of all activities related to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The decision will then be reviewed by the National Environmental Policy Act who will look to assess the potential impacts of drilling in the area. The move follows up on an executive order President Biden made on the day of his inauguration in January.

The question of fossil fuel drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has seen Indigenous and conservation groups pitted against oil companies and Republicans in one of the longest and biggest environmental battles of recent US history. 

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains 78,000 square kilometers (30,100 square miles) of rolling tundra and wetlands in the Alaska North Slope region that’s home to an incredible array of American biodiversity, including polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, moose, caribous, wolves, eagles, lynxes, wolverines, martens, and beavers.

Much of the drilling controversy specifically focuses on the refuge's coastal plain, known as the "1002 area," which includes the main calving ground for America's largest caribou herd, the Porcupine herd. Ever since discussions around opening the "1002 area" to fossil fuel exploration and industrial development started in the late-1970s, environmentalists and some Indigenous groups have been working to preserve the area's wildlife and heritage.

Under Trump, the US government started to auction off oil drilling leases deep in this contentious area. Backers of the plan said it would “support energy security, job creation, and economic growth,” but critics highlighted how the plan threatened to undermine the area’s unique biodiversity, as well as the traditional homelands of many Indigenous groups. 

As such, Indigenous and conservation groups have praised the decision to put a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities in the area. While this week's news has been welcomed, opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge suggest that the Biden administration needs to go further in its pledge to safeguard the environment. In recent months, the administration has quietly pushed through policy that will guarantee the drilling and burning of fossil fuels for decades to come despite its early promises, showing that the wider battle is far from over.

“Thank you, President Biden and Interior Secretary Haaland, for taking this step toward protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil activities. These lands are sacred to the Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples and nursery to the Porcupine caribou, polar bears, and millions of migratory birds,” a coalition of 17 Indigenous and conservation organizations said in a joint statement.

“More work remains, however, and we look forward to working with the administration on stronger action to correct this unlawful leasing program and preserve one of our nation’s most majestic public lands. We also look to the administration and Congress to now prioritize repealing the ongoing threat posed by the statutory oil leasing mandate and restoring protections to America’s Serengeti.” 


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