(JUNEAU, Alaska) — The U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday canceled seven oil and gas leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that were part of a sale held in the waning days of the Trump administration, arguing the sale was legally flawed.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said with her decision to cancel the remaining leases “no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on earth.” However, a 2017 law mandates another lease sale by late 2024. Administration officials said they intend to comply with the law.
Two other leases that were issued as part of the first-of-its-kind sale for the refuge in January 2021 were previously given up by the small companies that held them amid legal wrangling and uncertainty over the drilling program.
Alaska political leaders have long pushed to allow oil and gas drilling on the refuge’s 1.5 million acre coastal plain, an area seen as sacred to the Indigenous Gwich’in because it is where caribou they rely on migrate and come to give birth. The state's congressional delegation in 2017 succeeded in getting language added to a federal tax law that called for the U.S. government to hold two lease sales in the region by late 2024.
President Joe Biden, after taking office, issued an executive order calling for a temporary moratorium on activities related to the leasing program and for the Interior secretary to review the program. Haaland later in 2021 ordered a new environmental review after concluding there were “multiple legal deficiencies” underlying the Trump-era leasing program. Haaland halted activities related to the leasing program pending the new analysis.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state corporation that won seven leases in the 2021 sale, sued over the moratorium but a federal judge recently found the delay by Interior to conduct a new review was not unreasonable.
The corporation obtained the seven leases to preserve drilling rights in case oil companies did not come forward. Major oil companies sat out the sale, held after prominent banks had announced that they would not finance Arctic oil and gas projects.
The coastal plain, which lies along the Beaufort Sea on Alaska's northeastern edge, is marked by hills, rivers and small lakes and tundra. Migratory birds and caribou pass through the plain, which provides important polar bear habitat and is home to other wildlife, including muskox.
Bernadette Dementieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in a statement thanked the administration for the lease cancelation but said "we know that our sacred land is only temporarily safe from oil and gas development. We urge the administration and our leaders in Congress to repeal the oil and gas program and permanently protect the Arctic Refuge.”
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