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Caribou in ANWR

Caribou wanders through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. (Photo: Danielle Brigida/Flickr/cc)

Groups Welcome Biden Review But Demand Congress Permanently Protect Arctic Refuge From Drilling

Activists urge lawmakers to reverse a relevant 2017 law, "cancel the leases issued by the Trump administration, and shut down this dangerous drilling program once and for all."

Jessica Corbett

Indigenous and environmental groups on Tuesday welcomed the U.S. Interior Department's decision to review the Trump administration's controversial move opening up previously protected land in Alaska to drilling despite threats to local communities and wildlife as well as the global climate.

"What is needed most is an act of Congress to permanently protect this special place from destructive drilling."
—Mike Scott, Sierra Club

The department's notice says the new environmental review of the leasing program for oil and gas drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) will "identify the significant issues, including any legal deficiencies" in a Trump-era analysis.

In a statement, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA) expressed appreciation for "the Biden administration's intention to address the insufficiencies and legal violations in the prior administration's oil and gas leasing program."

The group also called for Congress to repeal the program entirely, noting the key role that federal lawmakers played in opening ANWR up to the fossil fuel industry.

"We look to our representatives in Congress to now step up and do their share of the work in protecting this land that provides for Iñupiat and Gwich'in communities," SILA said. "It is time to protect the refuge and rescind the leasing program from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017."

"We remind members of Congress that traditional Iñupiat values include hunting traditions, respect for nature, and spirituality, all of which this law impacts in our communities," SILA added. "Please, act now to move to change laws that will impact Iñupiat communities, Gwich'in communities, and the rest of the world."

Environment America Public Lands Campaign director Ellen Montgomery also welcomed the review but echoed the call for congressional action.

"We are confident that the Department of the Interior will find that developing these leases would cause irreparable damage to the pristine landscape and the wildlife that make their home there," Montgomery said. "But the Biden administration can only pause drilling."

"Congress must act to fully end the leasing program in the Arctic Refuge," she said. "We cannot have another lease sale that opens up polar bear denning areas, caribou calving grounds, and the destination of hundreds of migratory birds to the invasive and polluting activities that come with oil excavation."

Sierra Club senior campaign representative Mike Scott agreed that "what is needed most is an act of Congress to permanently protect this special place from destructive drilling."

Blasting the approval of the program as "rushed and illegal," Scott urged Congress to "act immediately to reverse the pro-drilling provision in the tax act, cancel the leases issued by the Trump administration, and shut down this dangerous drilling program once and for all."

Nine leases for drilling in ANWR's 1.56 million-acre Coastal Plain were issued just before President Joe Biden took office in January—at which point he issued an executive order directing the interior secretary to place a temporary moratorium on the program and conduct a comprehensive analysis of its potential environmental impacts.

If Congress—currently controlled by Democrats—fails to heed calls to cancel the program for good, the federal government will be legally required to hold two more lease sales by late 2024.

The Arctic Refuge Protection Act, reintroduced in February by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), would restore protections and prevent fossil fuel development in the Coastal Plain.

"As we continue to face a worsening climate crisis, there is no place for the rushed, inadequate Arctic Refuge oil and gas plan finalized under the previous administration," declared (pdf) Kristen Miller, acting executive director for the Alaska Wilderness League.

"The Trump administration aggressively moved to get leases into the hands of oil companies prior to the end of its only term, and until those leases are canceled and the Arctic Refuge drilling mandate reversed, one of the wildest places left in America will remain under threat," she warned, urging Congress to use the upcoming budget package to repeal the oil leasing mandate.

Ben Greuel, Arctic Refuge Campaign director at the Wilderness Society, also pointed to the budget package as an opportunity to address a leasing program that he said "has been rushed, haphazard, and legally questionable."

"The refuge is a wild, beautiful place that was opened to leasing against the wishes of the majority of voters by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act," Greuel said. "As budget legislation moves through Congress, political leaders have an opportunity to reverse the entire leasing program and restore protections for the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. We call on them to do exactly that."

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