The Biden administration has reversed plans approved by Donald Trump to allow companies to drill for oil and gas in Alaska’s Arctic national wildlife refuge, a remote region that is home to polar bears, caribou – and 11bn barrels of oil.
The decision to suspend the oil drilling licences follows the temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease activities imposed by Joe Biden on his first day in the White House, and serves as a high-profile show of his climate credentials after approving hundreds of requests to drill on federal lands in recent weeks.
Biden used his 2020 presidential campaign to oppose drilling in the remote, 19.6m-acre Alaskan refuge, which is considered sacred by the indigenous Gwich’in communities and is also home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife, including migrating birds from six continents.
The region has long been an area of deep political contention between Republicans and the oil industry, which have long been trying to open up the oil-rich refuge, and the Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes which have been trying to block drilling since the mid-1990s.
But after a decades-long battle the first sale of the lease areas in the refuge earlier this year failed to attract interest from the oil industry’s biggest players, potentially making the decision to suspend the oil drilling licences an easier option for Biden’s officials which last week angered environmental groups by defending a major oil project on Alaska’s north slope.
The US Department of Justice said the Trump-era decision to allow the project in the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska’s north slope was “reasonable and consistent” with the law and should be allowed to go ahead. It added that opponents of the Willow project were seeking to stop development by “cherry-picking” the records of federal agencies to claim environmental review law violations.
The decision to green light the Willow project, spearheaded by $78bn oil company Conoco-Phillips, was heavily criticised by climate campaigners which claim that it flies in the face of Biden’s pledges to address climate change. It has also raised concern that the Biden administration is not willing to take a stand against US oil giants.
The Arctic is heating up at three times the rate of the rest of the planet and ConocoPhillips will have to resort to installing “chillers” into the Alaskan permafrost, which is rapidly melting due to global heating, to ensure it is stable enough to host drilling equipment.
By contrast, the suspension of oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic national wildlife refuge is unlikely to be opposed by the oil industry after the the first sale of drilling rights raised less than $15m (GBP11m) from two small oil drillers and failed to attract interest from companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.
Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, hailed suspension of the Arctic leasing program, which she said was the result of a flawed legal process under Trump.
“Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction, and we commend the Biden administration for committing to a new program analysis that prioritises sound science and adequate tribal consultation,” she said.
More action is needed, Miller said, calling for a permanent cancellation of the leases and repeal of the 2017 law mandating drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain.
The drilling mandate was included in a massive tax cut approved by congressional Republicans during Trump’s first year in office. Republicans said it could generate an estimated $1bn over 10 years, a figure Democrats call preposterously overstated.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Nation steering committee, thanked the president and the interior secretary, Deb Haaland, and said that tribal leaders are heartened by the Biden administration’s “commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life”.
Agencies contributed to this report