Haaland cancels leases in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge: ‘Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime’

a polar bear walks along the edge of a town. a building in the background and a snowmachine in the foreground
A polar bear walks along the edge of Kaktovik, the only village within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. (June 2018 file photo: Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has canceled all oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in a move designed to protect the region and reduce fossil fuel production.

“With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth,” Haaland said in an online news conference Wednesday. “Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime. And we cannot ignore the disproportionate impacts being felt in the Arctic. We must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem.”

No company was close to drilling in the refuge, in northeastern Alaska. Two companies that bought leases during the Trump administration later gave them up. A state agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, still holds seven leases. But Haaland’s cancellation forecloses the possibility it might sell them to a company to develop them. Her announcement also seems aimed at dissuading any company from even thinking about drilling in the refuge, even as the department is planning its second legally required lease sale there.

Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said cancelling the ANWR leases sends a chilling message to the industry nationwide.

“It does not send a signal of stability or consistency, or that this administration believes in the future of oil and gas development in our country,” Moriarty said. “If you’re an investor in any federal area in America, you have to wonder, ‘What the heck?'”

She called it ironic that this announcement comes just as news emerges that more oil tankers are sailing through the Bering Sea, taking oil from Russia’s Arctic to China.

“The world demand for oil is not going away,” Moriarty said. “So if the Biden administration was really concerned about the climate, I don’t think they would want to make more regulatory changes in the state that does it better than anywhere else.”

The future of the ANWR leases has been in doubt since the start of President Joe Biden’s term, when he ordered the Interior Department to review them for “alleged legal deficiencies.”

“What we have found in our analysis is that the lease sale itself was seriously flawed, and based on a number of fundamental legal deficiencies,” Haaland said Wednesday.

Her department says the Trump administration failed to properly consider alternatives to drilling in the refuge and to completely quantify the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from producing oil, refining it and burning it as fuel.

In addition to canceling existing leases, the Interior Department also released a new draft Environmental Impact Statement intended to govern the next lease sale in the refuge, which Congress ordered must be conducted by the end of next year.

Haaland also announced a proposed rule to make protections on federal land to the west, in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, more durable. It closely follows the contours of previously announced protections on 13 million acres that were set aside as “special areas,” including Teshekpuk Lake. The NPRA rule doesn’t directly impinge on ConocoPhillips’ work on its Willow leases, acquired in the 1990s.

“The proposed rule would not impact valid existing rights,” said Laura Daniel-Davis, principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for Land and Minerals Management.

ConocoPhillips says it has already spent more than $900 million on preliminary work at Willow and plans to spend that much again on construction this winter, if it wins a legal challenge pending in U.S. District Court.

The Arctic policy announcements drew a barrage of emailed praise from environmental groups while Alaska’s congressional delegation panned it.

“I am deeply frustrated by the reversal of these leases in ANWR,” Congresswoman Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said in a statement issued jointly with Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators. “This administration showed that it is capable of listening to Alaskans with the approval of the Willow Project, and it is some of those same Inupiat North Slope communities who are most impacted by this decision.”

Haaland referred more than once to the need to protect the land for indigenous people to use. The leader of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Bernadette Dementieff, said the leases threatened the Gwich’in way of life and the caribou herd they depend on. She expressed gratitude. But many Alaska Native people in the Arctic favor oil development, which has brought wealth to their communities and corporations.

“Today’s announcement by the Biden administration to rescind leases in the ANWR and further ‘protect’ 13 million acres of our ancestral homelands flies in the face of our region’s wishes and self-determination,” said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of Arctic Iñupiat, whose members include local governments, tribes and corporations across the North Slope.

The proposed rule for the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and the draft environmental statement for the Arctic Refuge are subject to public comment periods that begin soon. The lease cancelations are not. The Interior department says Haaland has the authority to cancel or suspend any oil and gas leases that were issued contrary to law or regulation.

Her power to toss out the seven Arctic Refuge leases will likely be decided by judges.

“We have to go to court to protect our rights in the ANWR leases,” AIDEA Executive Director Randy Ruaro said in a written statement. He said the agency could compel “Biden’s messenger, Secretary Haaland,” to sit for a deposition.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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