President-elect Joe Biden is facing renewed pressure to deliver on his promise of a bold climate agenda after a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration could move forward with a Wednesday auction of fossil fuel drilling leases for federally protected lands in Alaska.
"President-elect Biden can reverse these disastrous oil and gas industry plans by keeping his promise to ban fossil fuel extraction—including fracking—on our public lands and waters."
—Mitch Jones, Food & Water Watch
After decades of national debate over oil and gas development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Republicans in Congress opened up the region to drilling with a provision in the so-called "tax scam" that President Donald Trump signed in 2017.
Late Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage declined (pdf) to issue a preliminary injunction to block the auction. The request came from environmental groups and Indigenous people who are opposed to drilling in ANWR, which is home to over 280 species.
In a statement Wednesday, Mitch Jones, policy director at the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, urged Biden to prevent fossil fuel development in the refuge—and beyond—when he takes office in two weeks. The president-elect has previously said he "totally" opposes drilling in the ecologically sensitive region.
"Trump rushing through these lease sales as a final handout to his cronies in the oil and gas industry is outrageous, if not surprising," Jones declared. "Trump's consistent, willful ignorance of the realities of climate change has pushed our planet towards decades of increasing climate chaos."
"President-elect Biden can reverse these disastrous oil and gas industry plans by keeping his promise to ban fossil fuel extraction—including fracking—on our public lands and waters," he added. "This is a step he can, and must, take upon taking office."
Jones' call for Biden to intervene to protect ANWR's coastal plain came after environmental and Indigenous leaders expressed disappointment with Gleason's decision not to block the auction while also emphasizing that her ruling doesn't mark the end of their fight against drilling rights in the refuge.
Four lawsuits have been filed since August challenging the lease plans, according to Reuters. The National Audubon Society and other groups had argued that the auction shouldn't go forward until the broader challenge to the drilling is resolved.
The Anchorage Daily News reports that Erik Grafe, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Audubon Society, said the case "is by no means over."
"The court concluded only that for now there is no harm that justifies an injunction. It also recognized that such an action could come very soon with issuance of seismic permits," he said. "We will continue to press our case that the agency approved the program unlawfully and that its decision should be overturned."
Trump's last-ditch effort to extract fossil fuels in this sacred region is a direct assault on Indigenous sovereignty, our climate, and communities everywhere. https://t.co/a3aphlIP98
— 350 dot org (@350) January 6, 2021
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which represents some of the area's Indigenous people, similarly said Tuesday that "today's ruling is disappointing but does nothing to change the strength of our lawsuit or our resolve."
Demientieff's people have relied on the region's Porcupine Caribou Herd for thousands of years. The Gwich'in call the coastal plain, which the caribou use as their calving grounds, "Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit" or "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."
As The Guardian reported ahead of the ruling Tuesday:
Oil from drilling west of the refuge, at Prudhoe Bay, has fueled the economic development the state has depended on to fill its coffers and write annual revenue checks to residents. That extraction also led to the most damaging oil spill in history, when the Exxon Valdez tanker spewed millions of barrels off Alaska's southern coast in 1989.
Prudhoe Bay "was the largest oil field ever discovered in North America. Since then we have had more than 1,500 square miles of oil and gas development in the Alaskan Arctic… but [ANWR] has been off limits," said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
"For us, it symbolizes just what's at stake here. If you can't draw a line at the tundra and keep this one area of the Arctic off limits, then the question is, where can you draw the line and what protected part or wildlife refuge in the United States will remain off limits?"
For the first-ever ANWR auction, the Bureau of Land Management "plans open bids from companies seeking 10-year leases," according to the Daily News. "Up for grabs to the highest bidder are 22 tracts on the refuge's coastal plain, most of them about 50,000 acres. Together, the tracts represent about 5% of the 19-million-acre refuge."
With the denial of the injunction lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will go forward today. The industry has shown little interest in pursuing risky Arctic drilling. A state agency is currently the sole bidder. #ProtectTheArctic https://t.co/dSQDVubpP9
— Ctr4BioDiv Ocean (@EndangeredOcean) January 6, 2021
It remains unclear if any fossil fuel companies will even bid on the leases—especially given that major U.S. banks, under pressure from environmental and Indigenous groups, have adopted policies of refusing to finance drilling in the Arctic, including ANWR, which was designated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960.