HSE & Sustainability

Biden Suspends Drilling Leases in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The decision blocks, for now, oil and gas drilling in one of the largest tracts of undeveloped wilderness in the United States.

A polar bear in the Beaufort Sea, off the Alaskan coast in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit: Steven J. Kazlowski/Alamy.

The Biden administration on 1 June suspended oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, unspooling a signature achievement of the Trump presidency and delivering on a promise by President Biden to protect the fragile Alaskan tundra from fossil fuel extraction.

The decision sets up a process that could halt drilling in one of the largest tracts of untouched wilderness in the United States, home to migrating waterfowl, caribou, and polar bears. But it also lies over as much as 11 billion bbl of oil, and Democrats and Republicans have fought over whether to allow drilling there for more than 4 decades.

A formal order from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland paused the leases until her agency has completed an environmental analysis of their effect and a legal review of the Trump administration’s decision to grant them.

While the move follows President Biden’s Inauguration Day executive order to halt new Arctic drilling, it also serves as a high-profile way for the president to solidify his environmental credentials after coming under fire from activists angered by his recent quiet support for some fossil fuel projects.

“President Biden believes America’s national treasures are cultural and economic cornerstones of our country, and he is grateful for the prompt action by the Department of the Interior to suspend all leasing pending a review of decisions made in the last administration’s final days that could have changed the character of this special place forever,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House domestic climate policy adviser.

Environmentalists have criticized moves by the White House last month to legally defend a major drilling project elsewhere in Alaska, to pass on an opportunity to block the contentious Dakota Access oil pipeline, and to support a Trump-era decision to grant oil and gas leases on public land in Wyoming.

“Suspending leases in the Arctic Refuge is a major step forward in keeping President Biden’s campaign promise and cutting carbon pollution,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “Going forward, we also need to ensure the administration keeps its climate commitment across the board. A ‘drill here, don’t drill there’ approach will not get the job done.”

But Alaskan elected officials were livid.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, said in a statement that the suspension of leases was contrary to federal law because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2017 directed the interior secretary to create the leasing program. “Neither the president nor the secretary are given the discretion to decide otherwise,” she said.

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