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Interior Department suspends oil and gas leases in ANWR

The action places leases purchased in January in limbo.
Pools of water in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, Alaska. (Photo from AP Images)
Pools of water in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, Alaska. (Photo from AP Images)(KTUU)
Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 8:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - President Joe Biden’s administration is suspending all oil and gas activity in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing the need for a more rigorous environmental review, including 430,000 acres of lease tracts acquired at sale in January.

The decision upends the Trump administration’s efforts to develop oil and gas resources in a portion of the 19.3 million-acre refuge on Alaska’s North Slope.

The ANWR oil and gas program area is slightly more than 1.5 million acres.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of the Interior said it was suspending “all activities related to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge pending completion of a comprehensive analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

“The Biden administration’s actions are not unexpected but are outrageous nonetheless,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Tuesday in a joint statement from the Alaska congressional delegation and Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act mandates the U.S. Bureau of Land Management conduct two lease sales before 2024. The first sale took place in January of this year.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority picked up seven lease tracts.

We have invested to date a little over $12.8 million into the leases,” Alan Weitzner, executive director of AIDEA, told Alaska’s News Source Tuesday. “We have exclusive rights to development on a little over 365,000 acres within the section 1002 area with the BLM with those rights going on for 10 years.”

“Section 1002” refers to the section in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The act established ANWR, and in section 1002 the act deferred management decisions on the refuge’s coastal plain in recognition of its importance both as a wildlife habitat and its potential for oil and gas resources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“There’s the opportunity of and potential of a little over 7.4 billion barrels of oil, which in comparison, you look at the initial Prudhoe Bay field that’s proven out now to be 14 billion. It’s a very substantial reserve,” Weitzner said.

Critics who felt the Trump administration rushed the lease sales are commending the Biden administration’s decision to revisit the environmental review.

“What the administration has done right now is to say, ‘Whoa, whoa ... we’re going to reconsider this, and we’re going to reconsider whether those leases should have been sold because we think they were done in violation of the law.’ And that’s a good step,” said Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earth Justice. “The next step is that those leases need to be rescinded, so they’re not on the landscape.”

Earth Justice is among several groups that have gone to court over the lease sales.

“People were saying when Congress passed the law, ‘we’re going to get $1.8 billion from lease sales in the arctic refuge,’” Grafe said. “In the event, at the lease sale, they got $12 million or so, less than 1% of what the proponents were telling Congress they would get.”

Grafe believes the next step is to ask Congress to undo the law that made the sales possible.

“From our perspective, drilling in the coastal plain is a climate disaster and a human rights disaster,” Grafe said. “And the Biden administration is leading on both of those issues.”

Native American Rights Fund, which represents the villages of Arctic Village and Venetie, is among some Alaska Native communities and national conservation groups urging a more thorough review of resource development’s environmental and human impacts within the coastal plain.

“The Trump administration did not conduct an adequate environmental review,” Matt Newman, an attorney with the organization, said in an interview Tuesday. “And the announcement today acknowledges that and orders that the adequate review take place.”

“I am very pleased to see that this administration is going to work with and prioritize the voices of those Alaska Native tribes in evaluating the environmental impacts of the coastal plain,” Newman continued.

Yet the development of the refuge’s petroleum potential could have substantial benefits for nearby communities.

“Today’s announcement is disappointing as it seemingly ignores the local Iñupiat voices of the North Slope of Alaska, and it fails to consider the beneficial impacts this exploration will provide to our communities,” the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. said in a prepared statement.

“Our shareholders and the approximately 9,500 residents of the North Slope directly benefit, given such exploration brings important job opportunities and economic infrastructure support to our remote region,” the corporation said in its statement.

“Successful development of the coastal plain could ultimately result in thousands of jobs for hardworking Alaskans and could ultimately result in hundreds of thousands of barrels and daily pipeline throughput,” Patrick Bergt, regulatory and legal affairs manager for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, told Alaska’s News Source Tuesday.

“Oil production from the coastal plain will significantly help maintain the energy advantage that America now enjoys and will reduce U.S. expenditures on crude oil and petroleum product imports at a time when when when those considerations are critical,” Bergt continued.

Proponents of the lease sales and oil and gas development in the refuge are looking to the courts and to Congress to uphold the 2017 Tax Act.

“I oppose this assault on Alaska’s economy and will use every means necessary to undo this egregious federal overreach,” Dunleavy said in the joint statement with Alaska’s congressional delegation.

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