Arctic & Antarctica
Herd of caribou in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. | Photo by Colin Arisman

Arctic - What Happens Next with Oil and Gas in the Arctic?

Conservation groups welcome the canceled leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but fear more could be on the way

When the Biden administration canceled the last remaining oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on September 6, conservation groups applauded, as they saw the move as the nail in the coffin for the first, and so far only, oil and gas sale in one of the country's most sensitive and wild ecosystem. While the state of Alaska is threatening to sue the administration, supporters of the decision to cancel the leases anticipate this will be the first step in getting Congress to end extractive activity in a place where it was never intended to take place.

The optimism and joy from environmental organizations and Indigenous groups are somewhat tempered by the fact that the same law that mandated the 2020 sale requires another sale in December 2024. What's needed now, argues Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, is for Congress to repeal the Arctic Refuge oil and gas program completely to permanently protect the wildlife refuge from any possible future drilling.

"Cancellation of these leases is a step to rectify attempted violence against our people, the animals and sacred land," wrote the Gwich’in Steering Committee on the day the leases were revoked. "The leases were economically infeasible, threatened the Porcupine Caribou Herd and the Gwich’in way of life, and if developed, would have added to the already deteriorating climate in the Arctic and the world over."

The Gwich’in, along with an array of national environmental organizations and US lawmakers, have advocated for protection in the refuge for decades. But during the Trump era, a Republican-led Congress passed the 2017 Tax Act, forcing the Department of Interior to open up the Arctic Refuge to fossil fuel interests. While the initial sale was a resounding flop due to tepid enthusiasm, a quasi-governmental state agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, leased seven tracts of land. Two private companies bid and then nixed its leases, leaving the Alaskan corporation as the sole oil and gas bidder in the refuge. A similarly lackluster response is expected for next year's sale, given that all major US banks have committed to not fund drilling efforts in the Arctic Refuge.

On the same day the leases were canceled, the Interior Department released a new draft assessment for next year’s sale. The new analysis includes stronger environmental protections and a wider range of options for how oil and gas leases should be conducted in the refuge, standards critics say the previous administration neglected to incorporate into its framework. The new analysis offers fewer acres for sale and limits the area where infrastructure can be built. Advocacy groups have welcomed the draft but hope the Biden administration will adopt even stronger measures that maximize protections for the area while limiting impacts to wildlife, ecosystems, and tribal nations. Among those concerns are issues with threatened polar bears.

"We are concerned that much of the onshore area polar bears use to den are open to leasing and other harmful oil and gas activities without strong enough measures to actually protect denning polar bears," Brook Brisson, a senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which represents environmental groups in legal cases, said. "The coastal plain is designated critical habitat, and it's being used increasingly for onshore denning as sea ice habitat becomes less and less available because of climate change."

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