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Yesterday, the Department of the Interior moved to suspend all oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, undoing a highly contested move made by the Trump administration last year. Interior said it would suspend all leasing program operations “pending completion of a comprehensive analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”
As one of the last expanses of untouched wilderness in the United States, ANWR‘s coastal plain is also home to nearly 200 wildlife species, including polar bears, musk oxen, and caribou, making a spill in this fragile ecosystem unthinkable.
Why This Matters: Since 1977 when Congress first heard testimony on the potential of drilling in ANWR, Republicans and Democrats have been in a battle over whether fossil fuel extraction should occur in the refuge. Though proponents of drilling have previously claimed that it can be done in a safe and measured manner (i.e. opening up small parts of the total refuge acreage to drilling), oil companies themselves have not shown interest in buying permits to drill there.
However, environmental proponents and a bicameral coalition in Congress have expressed that the only way to fully protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from future threats is to designate it as wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Interior In A Tight Spot: Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland stated in her order that Interior “identified multiple legal deficiencies in the underlying record supporting the leases” on the part of the Trump administration.
Yet the Biden administration is drawing heat for protecting ANWR while allowing drilling in another part of Alaska. Just last week, the Department of Justice filed a brief defending ConocoPhillips’s Willow project, an oil reservoir National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
“Thirty years of climate pollution from this oil project will accelerate the global climate crisis, and it is at odds with the Biden administration’s bold climate leadership,” said EarthJustice managing attorney Eric Jorgensen.
“In the end, on these choices, there is ultimately a climate imperative to take prompt action. And even in the face of strong political pressure, taking those choices in the near term is what the administration needs to do to meet the bold climate vision that it set out.”
As Lisa Friedman explained for the New York Times, Willow set up a choice for the Biden administration: decline to defend oil drilling and hinder a lucrative project that conflicts with its climate policy or support a federal decision backed by the state of Alaska, some tribal nations, unions and key officials, including Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican senator seen as a potential ally of the administration in an evenly split Senate.
Despite this, the administration hopes to amass goodwill among the environmental community for its steps to halt drilling in ANWR. National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said in a statement,
“Today marks an important step forward fulfilling President Biden’s promise to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Biden believes America’s national treasures are cultural and economic cornerstones of our country and he is grateful for the prompt action by the Department of the Interior to suspend all leasing pending a review of decisions made in the last administration’s final days that could have changes the character of this special place forever.”
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