Biden administration cancels oil and gas leases in Arctic wildlife refuge

The move comes as the Biden administration seeks to expand protections against oil and gas development on public lands.

A plane flies over a herd of caribou in Alaska
An undated photo provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service shows a plane flying over a herd of caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska [File: US Fish and Wildlife Service via AP Photo]

The administration of United States President Joe Biden has announced that it will cancel a number of oil and gas leases in a federal wildlife refuge previously issued under former President Donald Trump.

In a press release on Wednesday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) authorised the cancellation of seven such leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the state of Alaska.

The leases were issued to the state’s development agency in the closing days of the Trump administration but have been suspended since June 2021, citing “legal deficiencies”.

“With climate change warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, we must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in Wednesday’s press release.

The move is the latest effort by the Biden administration to make good on promises to shield more public lands from oil and gas development and combat climate change, which has contributed to increases in extreme weather events around the world.

Environmental groups have criticised the administration for perceived failures to follow through on those promises, including a decision in March to approve a large oil drilling project in Alaska.

Opinions about that project, known as the Willow Project, are divided in Alaska. But some, including a number of Indigenous communities, have expressed hope that it could bring greater economic opportunities to the region.

Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, slammed Wednesday’s decision in a statement to the press, saying that it would set back the state’s economic development.

“There is palpable anger and frustration among Alaskans about the Biden administration’s unrelenting assault on our economy and our ability to lawfully access our lands,” said Sullivan.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), which originally purchased the leases, has yet to comment on the decision.

Environmental groups, on the other hand, welcomed the news.

“Public lands are a public trust. They must be part of the climate solution — not the problem,” Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the nation’s largest wildlife refuge. It’s no place for oil and gas drilling and all the damage and danger it brings.”

The DOI statement also says that it has proposed new regulations protecting more than 5.2 million hectares (13 million acres) of land in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the largest piece of undisturbed public land in the country, closing off about 40 percent to oil and gas development.

The press release notes that many Indigenous communities continue to rely on the reserve for subsistence activities.

“The steps we are taking today further that commitment, based on the best available science and in recognition of the Indigenous knowledge of the original stewards of this area, to safeguard our public lands for future generations,” said Haaland, who is the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in US history.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies