Biden to suspend Trump-era oil drilling leases in Arctic refuge

The administration of United States President Joe Biden is suspending oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as it reviews environmental impacts of drilling in the remote region that has been the focus of a political fight for decades, according to two people who have been briefed on the administration’s plan.

The US Department of the Interior’s order was set to be announced later Tuesday. It follows a temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease activities imposed by Biden on his first day in office. Biden’s January 20 executive order suggested a new environmental review was needed to address possible legal flaws in a drilling programme approved by the administration of former President Donald Trump under a 2017 law approved by Congress.

The people briefed on the plan requested anonymity because the plan had not been officially released.

The remote, 19.6 million-acre refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife, including migrating birds from six continents. Republicans and the oil industry have long been trying to open the wildlife refuge, considered sacred by the Indigenous Gwich’in, for drilling. Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes have been trying to block it.

The US Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department agency, held a lease sale for the refuge’s coastal plain on January 6, two weeks before Biden took office. Eight days later the agency signed leases for nine tracts totalling nearly 1,774 sq km (685sq miles). However, the issuance of the leases was not announced publicly until January 19, Trump’s last full day in office.

Biden has opposed drilling in the region, and environmental groups have been pushing for permanent protections, which Biden called for during the presidential campaign.

The administration’s action to suspend the leases comes after officials disappointed environmental groups last week by defending a Trump administration decision to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. Critics say the action flies in the face of Biden’s pledges to address climate change.

The US Department of Justice said in a court filing that opponents of the Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska were seeking to stop development by “cherry-picking” the records of federal agencies to claim environmental review law violations. The filing defends the reviews underpinning last fall’s decision that approved project plans.

A coalition of groups has sued to invalidate the Trump-era approval. An appeals court earlier this year halted certain construction activities, and parties in the case later agreed to keep in place construction activity limits until December 1 while the underlying case continued.

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