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  6.  | Interior Secretary Cancels ANWR Leases

Interior Secretary Cancels ANWR Leases

Sep 6, 2023 | Government, News, Oil & Gas

ANWR Coastal Plain.

Judith Slein | Flickr

The Biden Administration is canceling the last remaining leases held for oil and gas development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Alleged Legal Deficiencies

The order by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland affects seven leases the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) acquired at a lease sale on January 6, 2021. The cancellation prevents the state agency from developing the ten-year leases by itself or selling access to ANWR lands to a third-party developer.

“With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth,” Haaland said. “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.”

Two other companies that bought ANWR leases have already relinquished them.

One of President Joe Biden’s first acts in office was to review the ANWR lease sale, which was authorized by Congress in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. On January 21, 2021, he issued Executive Order 13990 directing the Department of the Interior to analyze “alleged legal deficiencies underlying the program.”

Later that year, the leases were suspended, pending a final determination. At the time, Haaland said the preliminary review found there was insufficient analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, including inadequate consideration of alternatives and failing to completely quantify greenhouse gas emissions from producing and using ANWR crude oil.

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The secretary echoed that finding in her cancellation announcement. “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.

A second lease sale is still required by law, so the Interior Department drafted a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) that is now out for a 45-day public comment period.

Links to PDF files of the draft SEIS are on the US Bureau of Land Management web page.

Irreparable Harm

Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, looking south toward the Brooks Range mountains.

US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

Disputing the secretary’s finding of legal deficiencies, Governor Mike Dunleavy argues that the leases held by AIDEA were legally issued, as mandated by Congress. “It’s clear that President Biden needs a refresher on the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine,” Dunleavy says. “Federal agencies don’t get to rewrite laws, and that is exactly what the Department of the Interior is trying to do here.” Dunleavy adds that the State of Alaska will turn to the court system.

“The cancellation will undoubtedly cause irreparable harm to our communities and the 11,000 residents of the North Slope who rely on these lands to sustain their way of life,” says a joint statement from the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the North Slope Borough, and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. “Ripple effects from this decision include decreased connectivity between communities through less seasonal road and trail access for our people, more difficult construction of critical infrastructure—including rebuilding schools—and a lower likelihood of more permanent and redundant telecommunications and broadband infrastructure, all in the wake of an ongoing local telecommunications emergency.”

The Interior Department says the SEIS for a second ANWR lease sale was developed with engagement from “wide variety of stakeholders and used the best available data and science, including Indigenous Knowledge.”

However, one group of Indigenous Alaskans, the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, says its support for ANWR development is being ignored. “For years, our board—which represents elected village and regional leadership across the North Slope—has been steadfast in their support of locally-driven decision-making for our homelands,” says Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice. “We urge the Biden administration to center our Indigenous voices, as well as our self-determination, in future decision-making affecting our region.”

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