The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it will suspend oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while an analysis of the environmental impact of drilling in the area is conducted.
President Joe Biden issued an executive order pausing oil and gas lease activities in the refuge on his first day in office. The Jan. 20 order stated that a review of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program was necessary to address possible legal deficiencies, “including the inadequacy of the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act.”
Flouting efforts by Democrats and environmentalists to keep the refuge closed off to oil and gas development, the Trump administration announced in December that it would begin the sale of leases for allotments along the coastal plain.
The coastal plain encompasses about 1.6 million acres of the 19.6 million-acre refuge and is thought by geologists to contain billions of barrels of oil.
The refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife. It is considered sacred land by the indigenous Gwich’in Nation, a tribe on the southern boundary of the refuge.
The Bureau of Land Management held a lease sale on Jan. 6 and issued 10-year leases on nine tracts of land covering over 430,000 acres.
Conservation and indigenous organizations had sued the Trump administration in August, claiming that the leasing program is illegal and violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Endangered Species Act and other laws.
In an order issued Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland stated that the review of the program “identified multiple legal deficiencies in the underlying record supporting the leases.”
The order directs the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cease actions related to leasing and development until a comprehensive environmental analysis can be completed.
The Alaska Wilderness League, one of the groups that sued the Trump administration in August, praised the decision in a statement Tuesday and called the move “a step in the right direction” but said there’s still more work to be done.
“The leasing program and resulting lease sale were the result on a substantial flawed and legally deficient process that must be reversed,” said Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “Until the leases are canceled, they will remain a threat to one of the wildest places left in America. Now we look to the administration and Congress to prioritize legislatively repealing the oil leasing mandate and restore protections to the Arctic Refuge coastal plain.”
Environment America, a federation of environmental advocates, also issued a statement applauding the announcement, calling it “another strong step toward protecting the refuge.”
“We’re calling on Congress to establish permanent protections for this wild, remote area. Oil leases should never have been sold in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and we now need our leaders to make sure it never happens again. We need more nature, more baby caribou, more denning polar bears and more wildlife. Here’s what we don’t need: dredging up fossil fuels in a wildlife refuge,” said Ellen Montgomery, the group’s public lands campaign director.