President Joe Biden imposed a “temporary moratorium” on all oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge shortly after taking office, citing the “alleged legal deficiencies underlying the program” and the inadequacy of a required environmental review.
Biden’s move to slam the brakes on drilling in the northeast Alaska refuge is among a list of executive orders the newly-inaugurated president swiftly signed to undo actions by his predecessor.
The new moratorium comes a day after the Trump administration announced, in its final moments, that it had finalized nine 10-year leases for oil drilling in the northernmost slice of the refuge, known as the coastal plain.
The leases are held by two small companies and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation.
The Trump administration had faced criticism that it rushed the controversial deals.
Biden’s executive order directs the Interior Department to review the oil-leasing program for the refuge, and “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law” to do a new analysis of its potential environmental impacts.
Biden campaigned on “permanently protecting” the Arctic refuge, and “reversing Trump’s attacks” on the area, but had not released any specifics about his intentions before January 20, 2021.
Larry Persily, a longtime observer of the oil and gas industry in Alaska, said he didn’t expect a moratorium to have immediate, sweeping impacts because there’s no near-term work to stop.
“The leaseholders don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay for activity,” Persily said in an interview. “They’ve got to find partners, they’ve got to come up with plans, they’ve got to go for permits, there’s got to be environmental reviews.”
Still, environmental groups and Indigenous Gwich’in leaders said the news gave them an overwhelming sense of relief.
“I thanked the creator,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and a longtime drilling opponent. “And I just sat on my couch and looked at my grandson and just cried. Everything I do is for our future generations.”
The Gwich’in live just outside the refuge, and depend on the caribou that commonly give birth in the coastal plain.
They have long worked with environmental groups on an aggressive opposition campaign, arguing that oil development in the refuge would harm wildlife and the land — and exacerbate climate change in a place that’s already warming fast.
Demientieff described Wednesday as “a very good day,” but said “the fight goes on.” The Gwich’in Steering Committee is behind one of four lawsuits that call on a federal judge to cancel the oil leases issued by the Trump administration.
“Permanent protection is what we are looking for,” Demientieff said.
Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, summed up opponents’ feelings another way, saying in a statement: “Our long national nightmare of environmental carnage ends today.”
‘I’m prepared to use every resource available to fight for Alaskans right to have a job’
Drilling booster Gov. Mike Dunleavy, however, was not pleased with Wednesday’s news. He blasted Biden for “making good on his promise to turn Alaska into a large national park.”
“I’m prepared to use every resource available to fight for Alaskans’ right to have a job, and have a future by taking advantage of every opportunity available to us,” Dunleavy said in a statement.
Alaska’s congressional delegation also slammed the move by Biden to block oil development in the refuge, saying they were “disappointed” and “astounded” by his day-one announcement.
“Well that was fast,” U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a statement. “Today, in his inaugural address, President Biden called for national unity and healing. However, just hours earlier, his administration took their cues from radical environmentalists in issuing punitive and divisive actions against Alaska, many other resource development states, and whole sectors of our economy,”
Even before Biden’s action, though, the refuge’s future as a source of oil and jobs was far from secure.
The Trump administration held the refuge’s first lease sale Jan. 6, following a 2017 decision by Congress to open the area to drilling.
But the sale drew little interest. No major oil companies bid on the leases. Instead, two smaller companies each picked up a single lease, and the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority picked up seven.
‘We will be at the table for whatever they do’
Former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker had pushed the state to bid on the leases, concerned that the oil industry wouldn’t show up to the sale.
Walker said Wednesday that Biden’s moratorium came as “no surprise at all.”
He said he’s pleased the state now holds the leases, and believes that will give it more power in talks with the Biden administration about the refuge’s future.
“We will be at the table for whatever they do, which we would not be, had we done nothing,” Walker said.
Andy Mack, a former natural resources commissioner under Walker, described the leases as “legally binding.”
If the Biden administration decides to ban oil drilling in the coastal plain, Mack said, it needs to figure out a way to compensate those that would have financially benefited from development, including the state of Alaska and two Alaska Native corporations, Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. and Arctic Slope Regional Corp.
“This needs to be a value exchange,” Mack said. “There has to be something really, really significant placed on the table that we, as a state, can rely on.”