May 26, 2024


The Biden administration said on Friday it will restrict new oil and gas leasing on 13m acres (5.3m hectares) of a federal petroleum reserve in Alaska to help protect wildlife such as caribou and polar bears as the Arctic continues to warm.

The decision – part of an ongoing, years-long fight over whether and how to develop the vast oil resources in the state – finalizes protections first proposed last year as the Biden administration prepared to approve the controversial Willow oil project.

The approval of Willow drew fury from environmentalists, who said the large oil project violated Biden’s pledge to combat the climate crisis. Friday’s decision also cements an earlier plan that called for closing nearly half the reserve to oil and gas leasing.

The rules announced on Friday would place restrictions on future leasing and industrial development in areas designated as special for their wildlife, subsistence or other values and call for the Bureau of Land Management to evaluate regularly whether to designate new special areas or bolster protections in those areas. The agency cited as a rationale the rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic due to the climate crisis, including melting permafrost and changes in plant life and wildlife corridors.

Environmentalists were pleased. “This huge, wild place will be able to remain wild,” Ellen Montgomery of Environment America Research & Policy Center said.

Jeremy Lieb, an attorney with Earthjustice, said the administration had taken an important step to protect the climate with the latest decision. Earthjustice is involved in litigation currently before a federal appeals court that seeks to overturn the Willow project’s approval. A decision in that case is pending.

Earlier this week the Biden administration also finalized a new rule for public land management that is meant to put conservation on more equal footing with oil drilling, grazing and other extractive industries on vast government-owned properties.

A group of Republican lawmakers, led by Alaska’s junior senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, commented ahead of Friday’s announcements about drilling limitations in the national petroleum reserve in Alaska even before it was publicly announced. Sullivan called it an “illegal” attack on the state’s economic lifeblood, and predicted lawsuits.

“It’s more than a one-two punch to Alaska, because when you take off access to our resources, when you say you cannot drill, you cannot produce, you cannot explore, you cannot move it – this is the energy insecurity that we’re talking about,” Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, said.

The decision by the Department of the Interior does not change the terms of existing leases in the reserve or affect currently authorized operations, including the Willow project.

The Biden administration also on Friday recommended the rejection of a state corporation’s application related to a proposed 210-mile (338km) road in the north-west part of the state to allow mining of critical mineral deposits, including copper, cobalt, zinc, silver and gold. There are no mining proposals or current mines in the area, however, and the proposed funding model for the Ambler Road project is speculative, the interior department said in a statement.

Alaska’s political leaders have long accused the Biden administration of harming the state with decisions limiting the development of oil and gas, minerals and timber.

“Joe Biden is fine with our adversaries producing energy and dominating the world’s critical minerals while shutting down our own in America, as long as the far-left radicals he feels are key to his re-election are satisfied,” Sullivan said on Thursday at a Capitol news conference with 10 other Republican senators.

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Biden defended his decision regarding the petroleum reserve.

Alaska’s “majestic and rugged lands and waters are among the most remarkable and healthy landscapes in the world”, are critical to Alaska Native communities and “demand our protection”, he said in a statement.

Nagruk Harcharek, president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a group whose members include leaders from across much of Alaska’s North Slope region, has been critical of the administration’s approach. The group’s board of directors previously passed a resolution opposing the administration’s plans for the reserve.

The petroleum reserve – about 100 miles (161km) west of the Arctic national wildlife refuge – is home to caribou and polar bears and provides habitat for millions of migrating birds. It was set aside about a century ago as an emergency oil source for the US navy, but since the 1970s has been overseen by the interior department. There has been ongoing, longstanding debate over where development should occur.

Most existing leases in the petroleum reserve are clustered in an area that is considered to have high development potential, according to the Bureau of Land Management, which falls under the interior department. The development potential in other parts of the reserve is lower, the agency said.

The Associated Press contributed reporting



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