The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just got a reprieve—but it’s not safe yet

The U.S. recently announced it would suspend oil and gas leases in a pristine Alaskan ecosystem. But many environmental battles await the million-acre refuge.

The Biden administration’s decision this week to review new Trump-era oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a positive step, experts and environmentalists say. But it falls far short of a final resolution of the long-running battle over the refuge.

For 40 years, politicians have been fighting over whether to allow companies to drill for oil and gas in the pristine wilderness. It wasn’t until President Donald Trump’s final days in office that leases were auctioned off.

The lease sales, conducted amid economic uncertainty in the oil industry and growing public concern over climate change,brought in substantially less revenue than what Alaskan state officials were anticipating. (Read more about why industry interest in Arctic drilling is waning.)  The sales face legal challenges from environmental groups.

In an order issued on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called for a temporary halt of any activities under the lease sales, saying a better review of any potential environmental impacts was needed.

Environmental groups applauded the decision but were quick to point out that they will still push the administration to cancel the leases entirely. Environmentalists also note that the decision to temporarily suspend leases in ANWR was inconsistent with other recent moves by the administration to support oil and gas activity, including in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), west of ANWR on the Arctic coast.

“We are really hopeful the Biden administration is going to aggressively address the climate crisis, but they will need to take a wholesale look at oil and gas development,” says Kristen Miller, the acting executive director at the Alaska Wilderness League.

Environmental advocates want to see the administration cancel the existing leases in ANWR and adopt more permanent protections for the wilderness area.

Alan Weitzner is executive director at the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned company and the main bidder during the ANWR lease auction. He blasted the decision in a press release, saying, “We’re extremely disappointed in the Biden administration’s effort to prevent Alaska from lawfully and responsibly developing its natural resources as agreed and provided for under [the conservation act that established ANWR].”

In statements, both Alaska’s Governor Mike Dunleavy and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski opposed the Biden administration’s decision to suspend leases, saying it would come at the expense of the state’s economy.

The American Petroleum Institute criticized the decision for similar reasons, adding that drilling could be done in an environmentally responsible manner. “Our industry is committed to tackling climate change while safely and responsibly producing American energy,” said Kevin O’Scannlain, API’s vice president of upstream policy, in an emailed statement.

Open for business on the Coastal Plain 

This week’s order suspends the 11 leases issued by the Trump administration on January 6. It calls for a new environmental review of drilling in the refuge that will consider whether the Trump administration met certain legal requirements, such as provisions of the Endangered Species Act, when it issued the leases. That review will determine whether the leases are upheld, tweaked, or cancelled altogether.

Miller says the Trump administration’s environmental review of oil and gas drilling in ANWR did not consider the impact it would have on climate change, nor did it adequately consult with tribes. Two tribes, the Gwich’in and Iñupiat, consider the refuge sacred. It’s home to more than 200 different species of migratory birds and is an important breeding ground for caribou and polar bears.

But it’s what lies beneath the permafrost that has been sparking political debate since the refuge was created.

In 1980, Congress passed a law that protected 80 percent of ANWR. The remaining 20 percent, the 1.5 million-acres coastal plain, was left available for potential use. A 1998 survey estimated there could be anywhere from four to 11 billion barrels of oil in the coastal plain.

In 2001, as the U.S. entered into war after the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration pushed for fossil fuel development in the refuge . The issue has remained a largely partisan political football. Republicans in favor of drilling seemed to prevail in 2017, when Congress passed a tax cut bill that included a provision calling for lease sales in ANWR.

“To ensure enduring protections for the Arctic Refuge, Congress should repeal the 2017 law establishing an oil and gas program in this special place,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote in an email.

In February, over 110 members of Congress backed the Arctic Refuge Protection Act, but the introduced bill has gained little momentum. The law, if passed, would repeal the 2017 oil and gas leasing program and protect the coastal plain as a wilderness area.

“Drilling America’s Arctic refuge is a climate and human rights disaster, and the Biden administration knows the importance of re-establishing leadership on those two critical fronts. Now Congress needs to finish the job,” wrote Erik Grafe, the deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Alaska office, in an email.

A report released by the International Energy Agency last May concluded that to meet their emission reduction targets, countries need to make no investment in new fossil fuel projects. Based on this report, writes Grafe, “there is no room for new fossil fuel development on public lands, especially in the Arctic, if we want to maintain a livable planet.” 

“But it will also take tireless advocacy given entrenched interests resisting this path,” he notes, referring to the companies and politicians in favor of development.

Other controversial oil and gas projects move forward 

The Biden administration has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030. But it has also backed a number of other fossil fuel projects. In April, environmentalists were disappointed when the administration declined to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline, which delivers shale oil from North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois.

And in May, the Biden administration filed a court brief in support of what’s referred to as the Willow project in the NPR-A. Overseen by ConocoPhilips—the largest oil producer in Alaska— the project taps into a reserve with an estimated 300 million barrels of oil.

“We were a little disappointed that they decided to defend their position on the western part of the National Petroleum Reserve—the Willow project. The reality is you can’t adjust for climate change in some areas and ignore it in some areas,” says Miller.

ANWR, she notes, may have been a riskier economic and reputational bet.

The sale of oil and gas leases in the refuge was forecast by the Trump administration to bring in over $1 billion in revenue. It raised just over $14 million and didn’t receive bids from any major oil companies, nor was any major bank willing to supply funds. Alaska was the biggest bidder, buying nine of the 11 leases purchased.

“It was clear the lease sale was a failure,” she says.

Until the review process is complete, environmental groups will continue pushing the administration to cancel the existing leases and repeal the 2017 mandate.

“Suspending the leases is a step in the right direction,” says Monsell, “But the Biden administration and Congress must do more to protect the Arctic refuge.”



Read This Next

Here's why the CDC reversed course on masks indoors

Tokyo became a megacity by reinventing itself

The surprising ways sharks keep the ocean healthy

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet