Biden administration takes aim at ANWR in Build Back Better Act

Newly-reworked legislation draws swift reaction from environmentalists and opponents
ANWR is the target of sweeping energy reforms as detailed in the Biden Administration's...
ANWR is the target of sweeping energy reforms as detailed in the Biden Administration's reworking of the so-called Build Back Better Act. (White House image)(White House)
Published: Oct. 28, 2021 at 9:24 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 29, 2021 at 3:07 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - President Joe Biden, following up on a bill being touted as the Build Back Better Act, announced on Thursday the framework for the sweeping law that his administration maintains will, if passed, help “rebuild the backbone of the country,” in part through what it also says is “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history.”

A section of the bill’s current language specifically targets the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — rolling back permissions for exploration and development, and even proclaiming intentions of lease buybacks — and triggering scathing responses from opponents.

“The needs of Alaska’s local indigenous and rural communities for economic opportunity are being ignored by the Biden Administration,” Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority Executive Director Alan C. Weitzner wrote in an email Thursday. “All Alaskans cannot sit idly by and allow this further erosion of their rights. We will continue to vigorously defend AIDEA and the state’s rights to develop these leases.”

There is some relief for supporters of the move, however. Proponents said Thursday that they’re grateful for the efforts displayed in the bill that are meant to protect ANWR.

“(The bill) imposes some much-needed fiscal common sense and overdue action,” said Kristen Miller of the Alaska Wilderness League, “to reverse the fire sale of the crown jewel of our National Wildlife Refuge System.

“Repealing the oil and gas program is the most important action Congress can take right now,” she continued in a written statement, “to protect threatened Arctic wildlife and ensure the rights, culture and sacred lands of Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples remain intact.”

The Oct. 28 of the revised Build Back Better Act follows the Biden administration’s suspension of all oil and gas activity on the coastal plain of ANWR back in June of this year, a move Giwch’in tribes commended at the time, writing through a media representative that, “the very presence of leases on the Coastal Plain are an affront to the culture and ways of life for the Gwich’in Tribal members of Arctic Village and Venetie.”

“We – Gwich’in Nation of Alaska and Canada – are very pleased with the bill, and thankful that we have congressional leaders that are listening to our voice,” said Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We’re not going to stop pushing back, and we’re going to keep moving forward, until permanent protections are in place.

“I have learned never to put my guard down, and to always stay focused on the fight for protection of our sacred land,” she added. “This is not just work for us. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s always on our minds, and we’re very concerned with what the future holds for our children. They need to have a place in our homelands, one that is secure with healthy animals and clean water. It doesn’t look very hopeful if we continue to destroy our land.”

On the other hand, the Alaska Department of Law has previously stepped in in protest of federal tactics seeking to close the region to development and exploration. A statement provided by the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on her behalf, indicated she would support legal action if the bill passes as written.

“ANWR opponents will try anything to reverse the law we passed in 2017 to open a small fraction of the non-wilderness 1002 Area to responsible development,” Murkowski said, adding that the bill would “destroy jobs in Alaska.”

“Not even high energy prices, mounting inflation, and declining economic growth have convinced them to support the domestic production of resources we will rely on long into the future,” she said.

Murkowski said she, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young would do everything in their power to strike ANWR provisions from the reconciliation bill, and called for AIDEA and the State of Alaska to be ready to file suit for damages.

“Delayed action on climate also sets us back in the global race on manufacturing and innovation,” according to a release from the White House shared on Thursday. “and keeps us from harnessing the economic opportunity that this moment represents ... The framework will start cutting climate pollution now, and deliver well over one gigaton, or a billion metric tons, of greenhouse gas emissions reductions in 2030.”

While the White House statement does not specifically mention ANWR, it does discuss what it calls “substantial” consumer rebates and savings for middle class families who shift to clean energy and electrification, and clean energy technology, such as wind turbines and solar panels, that are to be manufactured in the United States and with American-made materials. It also discusses a new Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator that the administration says will help invest in clean energy projects around the country, such as funding port electrification and deploying cleaner transit options, and boost investment in coastal restoration, forest management, and soil conservation.

The statement also says that the $555 billion investment “represents the largest single investment in our clean energy economy in history,” and “will set the United States on course to meet its climate targets, achieving a 50-52% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels in 2030.”

Deeper within the writings of the bill, however, are details on what Biden’s federal government sees for the future of ANWR and other items relevant to the country’s fossil fuel resources.

The law would, if passed, repeal in its entirety the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Oil and Gas Program, cancel any leases issued pursuant to the same section of the related law, and return all payments for leases to the lessees within 30 days of enactment of the act. It also reinstates the prohibition of oil and gas leasing in certain areas of the Outer Continental Shelf, amends on and offshore fossil fuel royalty rates, and changes or introduces other fees related to fossil fuel exploration and development.

“This provision in the Democrats’ reckless tax-and-spending spree is simply the latest disturbing salvo in this war,” wrote Sullivan in a prepared statement sent to Alaska’s News Source on Thursday evening. “In the middle of a nationwide energy price spike, President Biden is intent on giving pink slips to hard-working Americans and Alaskans and decimating the U.S. energy sector.”

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the announcement simply “demonstrates the lack of understanding back in Washington D.C. about how the nation’s energy infrastructure works,” while Young said he is “disappointed,” adding that “(i)f the concern is carbon emissions, what sense does it make to shut down responsible energy production in ANWR only to force a greater reliance on foreign oil from countries with far lower environmental standards?”

The National Wildlife Federation, a country-wide conservation organization, said that the bill will help protect what is one of the last truly wild places on earth.

“It reforms the antiquated oil and gas leasing system, ensuring a better return for American taxpayers,” said the federation’s Mary Greene, a public lands attorney at the agency.

She added that it “will make historic investments in ecosystem restoration and fire prevention on our public lands, which benefits wildlife and humans alike.”

Demientieff called the current state of affairs surrounding ANWR “scary,” and said she believes everyone should be worried about protections for the region being removed.

“If anyone in this world has someone they love, then they need to get involved in this work, because their future is at risk right now,” she said. “This is not just a Gwich’in issue, this is everybody’s issue, and we should all be concerned about what’s coming our way.”

While one of the most obviously sweeping reforms within the bill is on Americans’ allowances as the fight against climate change rages on, many other provisions are written into the now scaled-back bill, which was adjusted in an effort to increase the likelihood of it passing both the U.S. House and Senate.

Among those are universal preschool, an expansion of affordable health care and large investment into affordable housing, and boosts to certain education programs.

The current language of the bill also includes a flurry of changes to certain taxes to help pay for the legislation, including but not limited to a surtax of 5% on personal income greater than $10 million and a 15% minimum tax on corporate profits of businesses with more than $1 billion in profits, though the Billionaires Income Tax was removed. Paid leave, which was initially touted in an earlier version of the bill, was removed entirely, as was coverage of community college for students.

The bill has not passed either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate, and no votes had been scheduled as of Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information and responses.

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