EXPLAINER: The suspension of Arctic refuge drilling leases

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Decades-long political and legal battles over drilling in America’s largest wildlife refuge took another turn when the Biden administration suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The move Tuesday was a blow to oil and gas proponents, who came as close as they ever have to starting a drilling program after the refuge was expanded 40 years ago to include the oil-rich coastal plain. The refuge was nearly opened to drilling in 1995 until President Clinton vetoed a bill sent to him by Congress. Here is a look at the administration’s decision and how it got there.

DIDN’T BIDEN DO THIS ALREADY?

Sort of. President Joe Biden issued a temporary moratorium on drilling in the refuge on his first day in office. The executive order suggested a new environmental review was necessary to examine possible legal flaws in the program approved by Trump administration.

The review, conducted by the Department of Interior, found “defects in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases,” prompting Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to suspend them.

DID THE MOVE STOP DRILLING IN THE REFUGE?

No. Drilling had yet to start in the pristine environment that’s home to polar bears, a huge caribou herd, millions of migratory birds and other wildlife.

HOW MANY LEASES WERE SOLD?

Major oil companies sat out the lease sale, which only produced leases on nine of the 22 tracts offered.

The Trump administration had approved the drilling program in a 2017 tax cut law enacted by congressional Republicans. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski played a key role in making sure the drilling provision was included.

The Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, conducted the lease sale on Jan. 6, after Trump lost his reelection bid but had not yet left office. Results of the sale were released on Trump’s last full day in office, with some critics complaining of the rushed nature of the sale.

A state corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, was the major bidder, taking seven leases. Two small companies each won one tract.

“The Department of Interior has yet to provide AIDEA with documentation of any deficiencies that would warrant a suspension of leases,” the authority’s executive director, Alan Weitzner, said in a statement. “We’re extremely disappointed in the Biden administration’s effort to prevent Alaska from lawfully and responsibly developing its natural resources.”

WHAT’S THE CASE FOR DRILLING?

Lots of oil.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal plan of the wildlife refuge has about 10.4 billion barrels of oil. By comparison, Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, is North America’s largest oil field at 25 billion barrels.

The refuge was created in 1960 in Alaska’s northeast corner. Congress in 1980 expanded it to 30,625 square miles (79,318 sq. kilometers), or about the size of South Carolina.

Congress also ordered that 2,300 square miles (5,957 sq. kilometers) of the refuge’s coastal plain be studied for its natural resources.

WHAT’S THE CASE AGAINST DRILLING?

Environmentalists and some Alaska Native leaders worry drilling will harm the land and Indigenous culture.

The coastal plain between the Arctic Ocean and the mountains of the Brooks Range is a winter home for pregnant polar bears. In addition, the Porcupine caribou herd, which has nearly 200,000 animals that migrate between Alaska and Canada, uses the plain as a nursery in the spring.

“After fighting so hard to protect these lands and the Porcupine caribou herd, trusting the guidance of our ancestors and elders, and the allyship of people around the world, we can now look for further action by the administration and to Congress to repeal the leasing program,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a statement.

The Gwich’in tribal members in the communities of Arctic Village and Venetie said the leases are an affront to their culture and way of life. The tribes filed a federal lawsuit against lease sale.

Tonya Garnett, special projects coordinator for the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, thanked Biden’s administration, saying “this goes to show that, no matter the odds, the voices of our tribes matter.”

Major banks such as Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs have said they will not provide future investment funding for Arctic oil projects.

IS THERE POLITICAL SUPPORT IN ALASKA FOR DRILLING?

Despite some opposition, political leaders in the state have long backed opening the coastal plain. The state’s all-Republican congressional delegation denounced the suspension of leases that would prevent getting more oil in the trans-Alaska pipeline.

“This action serves no purpose other than to obstruct Alaska’s economy and put our energy security at great risk,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said. “Alaskans are committed to developing our resources responsibly and have demonstrated our ability to do so safely to the world.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, another Republican, called the suspensions an assault on Alaska’s economy and vowed to undo “this egregious federal overreach.”

“We are not going to allow the Biden administration to turn Alaska into a giant national park,” Dunleavy said,

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Daly reported from Washington.

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