Alaska agency moves to spend $1.5M on Arctic Refuge development, setting up clash with Biden administration

A flat area of land with rivers going through it as seen from an airplane
Congress opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to oil and gas leasing in 2017, but the fate of the area is uncertain as the Biden administration has announced a new legal analysis of the Trump administration’s environmental reviews. (Nat Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Biden administration has suspended oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and aims to thwart drilling there, but an Alaska agency is still pushing ahead with its plans for development.

The state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which won seven leases at a sale in the final days of the Trump administration, is proposing to spend $1.5 million on its development efforts.

The money would go toward studies, data collection and permitting needed in advance of what’s known as seismic exploration: using heavy equipment to map areas under the earth’s surface to see how much oil could be there.

AIDEA’s board will consider the staff proposal at its meeting next week.

If it’s approved, the agency aims to begin its seismic work in the refuge next year.

But the Biden administration opposes drilling in the refuge and has moved to block development there — and AIDEA’s move could put the two sides on track for a battle in court.

Related: Biden administration puts Arctic refuge leases on ice as it asks for new environmental reviews

Earlier this month, Biden’s Interior Department suspended the oil and gas leases issued for the refuge by the Trump administration, and it placed a temporary ban on all federal activity related to a Trump-era development program. That includes acting on applications for activity like the seismic work that AIDEA wants to carry out.

The Biden administration says it’s now studying what it describes as legal errors in the Trump administration’s environmental reviews used to pave the way for leasing — and it says the leases could be reaffirmed, voided or subject to tighter environmental controls.

In a memo to board members, AIDEA’s executive director, Alan Weitzner, argued that the suspensions lacks a legal basis, adding that his agency still holds “valid and enforceable leases.”

He said AIDEA has already informed the Biden administration that it “will continue to assert our legal rights as authorized for the responsible development of the leases.”

Leaseholders generally enjoy stronger legal rights to conduct seismic work in the area under their control — so if the Biden administration were to reject an AIDEA application for such work based on the lease suspension, it could strengthen AIDEA’s case if it decides to sue the federal government.

Officials at both AIDEA and the Interior Department, which oversees the management of the refuge and the leasing program there, declined to comment.

One of the groups opposed to drilling in the refuge, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, criticized AIDEA’s proposal to advance towards development.

“This resolution is a continuation of AIDEA’s commitment to throwing the state’s money at bad ideas — projects that will cause harm to people, our climate, and our state’s economy,” Emily Sullivan, the group’s Arctic program manager, said in a prepared statement. “By asking for approval, from themselves, to spend more money on work that is not permitted and is unlikely to ever occur is just another round of political posturing to prove an increasingly irrelevant point.”

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