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Biden Administration to Bar Drilling on Millions of Acres in Alaska



In its most aggressive move yet to protect millions of acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness from oil and gas exploration, the Biden administration announced it would prohibit drilling in 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve and cancel all the existing leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The new regulations would ensure “maximum protections” for nearly half of the petroleum reserve, but it would not stop the enormous Willow oil drilling project in the same vicinity that President Biden approved this year.

Climate activists, particularly young environmentalists, were angered by Mr. Biden’s decision to allow the Willow project, calling it a “carbon bomb.” Since then, the administration has taken pains to emphasize its efforts to reduce the carbon emissions that result from burning oil and gas and that are driving climate change.

“We have a responsibility to protect this treasured region for all ages,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “Canceling all remaining oil and gas leases issued under the previous administration in the Arctic Refuge and protecting more than 13 million acres in the western Arctic will help preserve our Arctic lands and wildlife, while honoring the culture, history, and enduring wisdom of Alaska Natives who have lived on these lands since time immemorial.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was opened to drilling under President Donald J. Trump, a move that outraged environmentalists and overturned six decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of untouched wilderness in the United States.

The refuge in the northeastern corner of Alaska is home to grizzly and polar bears, snowy owls, migratory birds and herds of moose and caribou.

But it also sits atop an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and, for years, the fossil fuel industry, members of the Alaskan congressional delegation and state leaders have lobbied for drilling. In 2017 Congress passed, and Mr. Trump signed, a tax law that not only authorized but required leasing for drilling in the wildlife refuge.

The Trump administration held a lease sale that attracted just three bidders, including the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state agency. Most of the major oil companies stayed on the sidelines.

On his first day in office, Mr. Biden signed an executive order halting Arctic drilling and in 2021 suspended the leases that had been granted by the Trump administration, citing problems with environmental reviews. Last month a federal judge rejected a challenge by the state of Alaska, saying the federal government had the authority to suspend the leases while it conducted an additional environmental analysis.

That review found “multiple legal deficiencies” in the analysis that had been conducted by the Trump administration. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said two of the leases in the refuge had been canceled and refunded at the request of the lease holders. The remaining leases held by the Alaska development authority covered about 365,000 acres in the coastal plain.

“There are some places where oil and gas drilling and industrial development simply do not belong,” Ms. Haaland said. “With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on earth. Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime, and we cannot ignore the disproportionate impacts being felt in the Arctic.”

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

The authority had sued to block the Biden administration from reconsidering the refuge leases, but a federal judge in August dismissed the challenge and said the government could pause the leases while it conducted an additional review.

“Jobs are critical for our state,” Randy Ruaro, the industrial development and export authority executive director, said in a statement at the time, adding “This is especially true for rural areas such as Northern Alaska.”

Chris Wood, the president of Trout Unlimited, an environmental group, called the protections for the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska “one of the most significant conservation achievements of the past 20 years.”

John Leshy, a public lands expert who served in the Interior Department during the Carter and Clinton administrations, noted that the state had been the only remaining leaseholder in the refuge. The Biden administration could have standing to cancel those leases, he said, if it found that environmental reviews and other compliance measures on the leases had been inadequate.

The state of Alaska “would doubtless contest that in court,” Mr. Leshy said. He added that the outcome was not predictable.

“The bigger picture here is that no one but the state sees any future in drilling the refuge,” he said.

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