Taking advantage of what the Biden administration maintains were “legal deficiencies” in oil and gas leases in the Artcic National Wildlife Refuge granted by the Trump administration, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday canceled seven leases there while the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposed a regulation to rewrite oil and gas leasing operations for the nearby National Petroleum Reserve No. 4 that would “ensure maximum protection” for more than 13 million acres in the reserve.
According to Interior, the legal problems with the leases extended by the previous administration involved “insufficient analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, including failure to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives and properly quantify downstream greenhouse gas emissions; and failure to properly interpret the Tax Act.” Haaland, as Interior secretary, holds the authority to “cancel or suspend oil and gas leases issued in violation of a statute or regulation,” according to the department.
“With climate change warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, we must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem,” Haaland said in a prepared statement. “President Biden is delivering on the most ambitious climate and conservation agenda in history. The steps we are taking today further that commitment, based on the best available science and in recognition of the Indigenous Knowledge of the original stewards of this area, to safeguard our public lands for future generations.”
The proposed rule the BLM released for the petroleum reserve would for the first time in more than four decades rewrite the management rules for the largely pristine landscape that provides vital nesting habitat for migratory birds and is roamed by the Western Arctic and Teshekpuk caribou herds, which in turn help feed grizzly bears and wolverines. That rewrite would, the agency said, take “legal standards and procedures that govern” the petroleum reserve and which are “scattered throughout several statutes, regulations, plans, and guidance documents” and place them in a “more comprehensive guide to managing” the reserve.
“It would improve upon the existing regulations’ standards and procedures to balance oil and gas activities with the protection of surface resources in the [petroleum reserve]; designate and assure maximum protection of Special Areas’ significant resource values; and maintain and enhance access for long-standing subsistence activities,” the BLM said in outlining the proposed rule open for a 60-day public review.
The action was hailed as a victory for both the environment and the Gwich’in People, as the proposed rule supports “subsistence activities for Alaska Native communities” on the affected landscape.
“Protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a victory for the Gwich’in People and the iconic wildlife that depend on the refuge for survival. This action will help ensure that we’re not further exacerbating the accelerating climate impacts and habitat fragmentation in the Arctic,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “We thank the Biden administration for taking this important conservation action and urge Congress to permanently protect this crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
At Accountable.US, which describes itself as a nonpartisan watchdog, officials also applauded the administration’s move.
“President Biden has taken another step toward ending the vicious cycle of Big Oil influence and climate pollution,” said Kyle Herrig, senior advisor to Accountable.US. “This decision shows he is on the side of Alaska Native communities, wildlife, and everyone who values public lands, not fossil fuel industry lobbyists and the polluters they represent.”
In the wake of the Trump administration’s authoriziation of the leasing plan, nine leases were issued. However, two were canceled and refunded at the request of the leasees, said Interior. The remaining seven, covering 365,000 acres on the Coastal Plain, were held by one company.
The National Petroleum Reserve, covering more than 23 million acres, was established in 1923 by President Harding, who was acting to secure an emergency oil reserve for the Navy. Oil and gas leasing in the reserve were authorized by Congress in 1976.