U.S. President Joe Biden’s executive order on Jan. 20 said a new environmental review was needed to address possible legal shortcomings in a drilling program approved by the Trump administration.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is suspending oil and gas leases at Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as it reviews the environmental impacts of drilling in the remote region that has been the focus of a political struggle for decades, according to two people who have been reported on the administration’s plan.
The order from the U.S. Department of the Interior is expected to be released Tuesday. It follows a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities imposed by Biden on his first day in office. Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order suggested a new environmental review was needed to address possible legal flaws in a drilling program approved by former President Donald Trump’s administration under a 2017 law passed by Congress.
People informed about the plan requested anonymity because the plan had not been officially published.
The remote 19.6 million-acre refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife, including birds migrating from the six continents. Republicans and the oil industry have long been trying to open the wildlife refuge, considered sacred by the Gwich’in Indians, to drill it. Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes have been trying to block it.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of the Interior, held a lease sale for the shelter’s coastal plain on Jan. 6, two weeks before Biden took office. Eight days later, the agency signed leases for nine tranches totaling nearly 1,774 square miles (685 square miles). However, the issuance of the leases was not publicly announced until January 19, the last full day of Trump in office.
Biden has opposed drilling in the region and environmental groups have been pushing for permanent protections, which Biden called for during the presidential campaign.
The administration’s action to suspend leases comes after officials disappointed environmental groups last week defending the Trump administration’s decision to approve a major oil project on the north side of Alaska. Critics say the action is tough against Biden’s promises to tackle climate change.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a court file that opponents of the Willow project of the Alaska National Oil Reserve were trying to stop the development by “choosing” federal agency records to claim violations of the environmental review law. The presentation defends the revisions underpinning last fall’s decision to approve project plans.
A coalition of groups has sued to invalidate Trump-era approval. An appeals court earlier this year stopped certain construction activities and the parties to the case subsequently agreed to keep the construction activity limits until December 1 while the underlying case continued.