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Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska

Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska on May 29, 2019. (Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Green Groups Urge Biden to 'Do Much More' to Stop Arctic Drilling

"It's not enough to go back to the Obama-era status quo."

Kenny Stancil

While praising President Joe Biden for taking steps Monday to reverse a Trump administration policy that opened up millions of acres in the Western Arctic for oil drilling, environmental justice advocates argued that only a comprehensive federal ban on new fossil fuel leasing can adequately protect public lands and waters and stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

"We urge the Biden administration... to phase out all new leasing for fossil fuels on our public lands."

The U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said Monday in a statement that it intends to revert management of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) to the Obama administration's 2013 plan which would protect roughly half of the reserve, "while including certain more protective lease stipulations and operating procedures for threatened and endangered species," as outlined in a 2020 environmental impact statement.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, responded by saying that "the Biden administration needs to do much more to protect the Arctic from the oil industry."

"This is better than the Trump-era plan it replaces," Monsell said in a statement, "but far short of what's needed to address the climate emergency. No amount of mitigation measures can change the fact that more Arctic drilling means more climate chaos, more oil spills, and more harm to local communities and polar bears."

In the waning days of his administration, former President Donald Trump approved a plan that would authorize oil extraction in more than 80% of the vast NPR-A.

According to Reuters:

One of the most controversial elements of the Trump administration's plan was the approval of future oil development in Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake on the North Slope and the site of important habitat for migratory birds, caribou, and other Arctic wildlife.

Plans and policies dating back to the Reagan administration had kept Teshekpuk Lake off limits to development. The Obama-era plan expanded protections in the wetlands near the lake.

In addition to threatening a critical habitat for wildlife, expanded drilling in the Western Arctic would undermine food security for Alaska Native communities and further jeopardize the global climate.

BLM said that the decision to reverse Trump's effort to boost oil drilling in the NPR-A "reflects the Biden-Harris administration's priority of reviewing existing oil and gas programs to ensure balance on America's public lands and waters to benefit current and future generations."

However, the likely impact of the Biden administration's move remains unclear. As Reuters reported, "No lease sales had been conducted under the Trump administration's plan, as the last NPR-A lease sale held by the BLM was in 2019."

And although "the NPR-A has been the site of important new oil discoveries and developments," the news outlet noted, "none of those projects will be affected by the decision to revert to the Obama-era management plans" because "all the existing projects are on leases sold in past years."

In May, Biden's Interior Department defended a Trump-approved, multibillion-dollar oil drilling project in the NPR-A, sparking a backlash from Indigenous groups and climate campaigners. A federal judge blocked the development in August.

Despite Biden's campaign pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters, his administration has approved drilling permits at a faster rate than Trump's.

While the current White House claims that its hands are tied due to a GOP-led lawsuit against last year's moratorium on new leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed last month that Biden's Interior Department is choosing to sell drilling rights even though it doesn't have to.

"President Biden," said Monsell, "can't say he's addressing the climate crisis while allowing federal agencies to auction off more public lands to the oil industry."

Dan Ritzman, director of the Sierra Club's Lands, Water, and Wildlife Campaign, praised Biden for undoing his predecessor's attack on the NPR-A but echoed Monsell in urging the president to go further.

"We applaud the Biden administration for walking back Trump's disastrous assault on Alaska's public lands," Ritzman said Tuesday in a statement. "After a year of devastating extreme weather events and unprecedented high temperatures in Alaska, the last thing we need is a massive expansion of oil drilling in the Arctic."

"But in order to achieve the administration's ambitious climate goals," he added, "it's not enough to go back to the Obama-era status quo. We urge the Biden administration to build on this progress by acting immediately to phase out all new leasing for fossil fuels on our public lands."

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