Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A member of the Porcupine caribou herd is seen in the Arctic Refuge in Alaska.

(Photo: G MacRae/flickr/cc)

Now End All the Drilling, Campaigners Say as Biden Rescinds Arctic Refuge Leases

"Our sacred land is only temporarily safe from oil and gas development," said one First Nations leader, urging Congress and the White House to "permanently protect the Arctic Refuge."

Indigenous tribes and climate campaigners applauded the Biden administration's announcement Wednesday that it will cancel all existing oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and ban drilling across 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve, while hundreds of groups also called on the U.S. Interior Department to go further on fossil fuel leasing.

Biden's move in Alaska will reverse former Republican President Donald Trump's approval of a 2017 law that required leasing in the Arctic Refuge, the nation's largest area of pristine wilderness which is home to vulnerable species including polar bears, migratory birds, and caribou.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) holds the last remaining leases in the refuge, after two other lessees canceled drilling plans. AIDEA's leases would have allowed it to drill in 365,000 acres in the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain.

The Biden administration conducted an environmental analysis of the lease sale which found "multiple legal deficiencies."

Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, said that following the Biden administration's announcement, "our climate is a bit safer and there is renewed hope for permanently protecting one of the last great wild landscapes in America" as Indigenous communities can continue to depend on the porcupine caribou herd, which uses the refuge as its calving ground.

"We are profoundly grateful to the Biden administration for taking this step to protect what the Gwich'in [First Nations people] know as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii GoodlitThe Sacred Place Where Life Begins—and we call on Congress to repeal the Arctic Refuge oil and gas leasing provision in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and take action to permanently protect the coastal plain for future generations," said Williams.

Bernadette Dementieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, added that the tribe knows "that our sacred land is only temporarily safe from oil and gas development."

"AIDEA's leases were economically infeasible, unlawful, and threatened the porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich'in way of life. We thank the Biden administration and Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland for taking this step," said Dementieff. "We urge the administration and our leaders in Congress to repeal the oil and gas program and permanently protect the Arctic Refuge."

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also said Congress should make the protections permanent.

The protections announced Wednesday will not stop the Willow oil drilling project that Biden approved in March, allowing ConocoPhillips to potentially extract more than 600 million barrels of crude oil over 30 years, leading to roughly 280 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.

“The only way to meaningfully combat the climate crisis is by stopping new fossil fuel projects," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "The Biden administration is right to stop these egregious drilling plans—and they must apply the same standard to all other oil drilling and fracking operations in the country."

"Today's action is a reminder that the White House has considerable authority to rein in fossil fuels," she added. "It's time for the president to act on those powers."

Earthjustice expressed hope that the announcement will be "the tip of the iceberg" for protections in Alaska.

The protections will also not stop the Biden administration from allowing drilling elsewhere, including in the National Outer Continental Shelf, where the Interior Department is expected to announce a five-year leasing plan this month which could include as many as 11 offshore oil and gas leases with the potential to emit up to 3.5 billion tons of carbon pollution.

Groups including Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, and Oil Change International were among more than 200 groups that wrote to the Interior Department on Wednesday calling for the plan to include no new leases.

"Today's youth should not have to grow up in and inherit a world plagued by oil spills," wrote the groups. "We implore you, please end offshore drilling leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and all U.S. oceans, so we can start to undo the damage from decades of leaks and spills, protect our shores forever from a catastrophic oil spill, and enjoy a livable future."

Raena Garcia, a senior campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said Wednesday's announcements by the Interior Department, while laudable and important, do not wipe away the shortcomings of Biden's overall climate policy and "simply don't go far enough."

"Lease sales like those in the ANWR that were put forth by the Trump Administration should have never happened in the first place," said Garcia. "Small measures like the ones the Department of Interior put forward won't erase President Biden's incredibly disappointing climate record with respect to oil and gas leasing. If the Administration is truly committed to protecting our people and the planet, they will halt climate-destroying projects like Willow altogether."

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