The administration of US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday it would suspend oil and gas leases that were handed over to an Alaskan wildlife sanctuary in the final days of the Trump administration pending an environmental review.
The action reverses one of former President Donald Trump’s signature efforts to expand fossil fuel development in the United States and is a setback for the state government of Alaska that had hoped that the opening the enormous refuge would help revive its declining oil industry.
Trump’s Home Office sold the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) leases in January over objections from environmentalists and indigenous groups. During his campaign, Biden pledged to protect 19.6 million acres of pristine habitat for polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.
White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said Biden was “grateful for the Home Office’s swift action,” and said the oil and gas lease auction held at the haste by the Trump administration in the refuge “could have changed the character of this special place forever.”
Biden’s Home Office said it had notified the tenants, which includes an Alaska state agency.
The review, which will examine “legal deficiencies” in the previous administration’s environmental scan of leases at ANWR, will determine whether the leases would be maintained, canceled or subject to mitigation measures, the statement said.
The ANWR rental program is already the subject of lawsuits by environmental and Indigenous groups who allege the Trump administration violated federal law by performing a flawed environmental scan that failed to adequately consider its impact on wildlife and indigenous peoples.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which holds seven of ANWR’s leases, said it was disappointed with the decision and had no reason to believe the auction’s underlying environmental analysis was inadequate.
“I don’t know what they are referring to,” said Alan Weitzner, executive director of AIDEA, in an interview.
“ALL MEANS NECESSARY”
The move is Biden’s latest effort to restrict oil and gas activity on public lands, as part of a larger agenda to decarbonize the U.S. economy and tackle climate change. It also suspended all new rentals of oil and gas on federal lands and waters, the source of a quarter of the country’s oil.
Alaskan officials have expressed outrage, saying the rental of the ANWR was required by a 2017 law that opened up oil and gas development in the region.
“Our oil and gas leases are valid and cannot be withdrawn by the federal government,” Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said in a statement. “I oppose this attack on the Alaskan economy and will use whatever means necessary to undo this blatant federal reach.”
Columbia Law School professor Michael Gerrard called the move “prudent” given questions of whether the leases were legally granted, but said the case could end up in court.
“At the end of this review, they will make a final decision, and anyone who is not happy with that decision at that time can decide to take legal action,” Gerrard said.
Alaska-based green and indigenous groups who have filed a lawsuit to stop the sale of the lease have applauded the move.
“We look forward to working with the administration on tougher measures to correct this illegal tenancy program and preserve one of our nation’s most majestic public lands,” said groups such as the Alaska Wilderness League and the Gwich’in Steering Committee in a joint press release.
The first sale of plots in the refuge, which took place two weeks before Trump left in January, garnered limited interest from the oil and gas industry and generated high bids of just $ 14.4 million. of dollars. Leases were eventually issued for nine plots covering 430,000 acres (1,740 square kilometers), Interior said.
Knik Arm Services LLC and Regenerate Alaska Inc, which each hold a lease, were not immediately available for comment.
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