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Biden administration cancels leases in Alaska wildlife refuge

Haaland says the lease sale was 'seriously flawed'

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Wednesday that the lease-sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was seriously flawed.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Wednesday that the lease-sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was seriously flawed. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Biden administration on Wednesday said it is canceling oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and proposed additional protections for millions of acres in a neighboring region.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said her department’s review found that the “lease sale itself was seriously flawed and based on a number of fundamental legal deficiencies.”

“With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth,” Haaland said during a call with reporters. “Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime and we cannot ignore the disproportionate impacts being felt in the Arctic.”

The lease sale was required by the 2017 Republican-led tax overhaul, a law that included a provision requiring the Bureau of Land Management to hold two lease sales of land in ANWR before 2024. The first was rushed to completion in the final months of the Trump administration.

The cancellation comes after the Biden administration received sharp criticism from Democrats and environmental groups for its approval in March of a ConocoPhillips project called Willow on Alaska’s North Slope. That project had the support of the Alaska delegation and the administration offered environmental protections. The ConocoPhillips project isn’t affected by Wednesday’s announcement.

The Biden administration will still be required to move forward with the second congressionally mandated lease, but officials didn’t provide any information on timing.

The 2021 lease sale generated only $14.4 million, considerably less than the $1 billion figure Republican supporters, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, touted as possible when the law was signed. After considerable pressure from environmental groups, many of the nation’s largest banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs said they wouldn’t finance projects in the region.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state-owned economic development corporation, had the winning bid on nine parcels, with two other companies each picking up one.

Haaland, however, issued a secretary’s order in June 2021 suspending the leases over concerns about legal deficiencies, which drew a legal challenge from AIDEA. Last year the two other companies opted to relinquish their leases and receive a refund from the Interior Department. Both companies cited the litigation as a factor.

Haaland also announced Wednesday proposed regulations for the neighboring National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which would extend protections to 13 million acres already designated as “special areas.” The regulations would limit future oil and gas leasing and industrial development, and require the BLM to gather and review public input at least every five years on whether the areas should be expanded.

Her proposal would establish an outright prohibition on new leasing within more than 40 percent of the NPR-A. These areas include habitats for polar bears, caribou and numerous migratory bird species. 

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